The Unit is the debut novel of Swedish writer Ninni Holmqvist. She has previously published three collections of short stories, but this is the first time I have read her. I really liked the book – while the tale itself is dark, and to me quite disgusting and terrifying – the writing style is quiet, solemn, well-controlled, descriptive and at times relatively sparse, and the book has been excellently translated by Marlaine Delargy. The Unit is a dystopia set in a near future, and the writing style – and the humanity, passion and warmth – contrasts dramatically with the horrifying story Holmqvist tells, and the contrast makes the tale all the more gripping.
This is a novel that transcends genres; it could justifiably be labeled as science fiction, fantasy, or crime fiction. In many ways it is a Huxley-type or Orwellian dystopia – very, very scary.
The Unit is about a future Sweden where a utilitarian philosophy – to some extent mixed with aspects of the welfare state ideology that currently dominates in all the Scandinavian countries – has been carried to it’s extreme. Human beings are now viewed as valuable capital–they are biological material. They are blood, organs and tissue that can be recycled. And all who fall into the new social category of “dispensable” are moved into special facilities where they are tended and harvested.
Dorrit Weger, the main protagonist of The Unit, is a dispensable. On her fiftieth birthday she is picked up and checked into the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. For male dispensables, the same thing happens at their sixtieth birthday. All contact with the world outside is shut off. For the world outside the institution, she has ceased to exist.
Dorrit gets a nicely furnished apartment, she gets to meet lots of people, she can use all sorts of recreation facilities at no cost, there are restaurants, theaters and much more available. Everything going on inside the institution is monitored – there are cameras and microphones everywhere – even in the bathroom there are three cameras. The people living in the Unit are now property of the State, and can do anything they want as long as they do not harm themselves – the property of the State.
Dorrit – like most humans – is adaptable. She makes and spends time with friends, engages in other people’s lives, and she shares in the pain when friends have operations to remove organs or are damaged as the result of medical experiments gone wrong. The dispensables are expected to participate in drug and psychological testing and donate their organs, one by one, until the time has come for the final donation. Like the others, Dorrit resigns herself to her fate, what else can she do? Then she meets a man, falls in love, and things turn upside down for her.
The Unit is a rich, terrifying novel full of understated themes– satire, ethics, human adaptability to circumstance, ideology, and so forth. However, there is little to no argument in the book – it is not a polemical book; it just tells a story. And the story it tells is haunting, compelling and very intriguing, full of believable characters, with interesting turns and twists, and told in excellent prose. I liked it a lot and I recommend it.
“Holmqvist’s spare prose interweaves the Unit’s pleasures and cruelties with exquisite matter-of-factness, so that readers actually begin to wonder: On balance, is life better as a pampered lab bunny or as a lonely indigent? But then she turns the screw, presenting a set of events so miraculous and abominable that they literally made me gasp.” – Marcela Valdes, The Washington Post