on 9 January 2016
A fantastically good novel, literally. We're in the realm of futurist science fiction here, but Holmqvist makes her dystopian world completely believable. Dorrit, the narrator, is very likable and credible. We see how at first she is fearful of entering The Unit, where society has decided that childless, non-productive, 50-year-old women (and 60-year-old men) must live. But she encounters very positive, affectionate, empathic new friends there, and starts to feel she belongs to this new world as she never did to her former life. There is everything to make for a comfortable existence - beautiful gardens, a well-equipped gym, attractive walks, shops and a restaurant, and a constant, spring-like climate. The price, however, is that of taking part in "humane experiments" and from time to time making donations of various body parts.
In some ways, it reminded me of "Never Let Me Go" (Ishiguro), but I thought "The Unit" was even better. Ishiguro is very philosophical and intellectual, keeping the reader at some distance from the characters whilst musing on the dystopian future he has created. In "The Unit" we immediately become immersed in the emotions and reactions of Dorrit and her new friends, and it is thoroughly engrossing. I could not put it down. The full horror and the sadness of Holmqvist's imagined world did not fully hit me until after I had finished it. It made me rethink some of my own attitudes to other people and to the kind of society we are creating - and you can't ask more of fiction than that.
on 13 December 2015
My god that was depressing. Dystopia is my favourite genre and I've read most things from We onwards. This was well written of course and I absolutely loved the fact that it took present day Sweden and feminism as starting points. Sweden is a country that scares me, it is seen as modern and progressive yet it is frighteningly prescriptive in some ways. So her use of this was fantastic for me.
What I didn't like, what I couldn't understand, is the lack of rebellion, the acceptance. I know Potter briefly mentioned that they used physchological techniques to make the inmates compliant. But still, it doesn't make sense to me, and it isn't believable to me. Even if society closed their eyes to it, how could the victims remain so calm?
The premise is quite similar to Unwind. Which remains the most horrific book I have read, because of the detailed description of the procedure, and the fact that it is done to children. The strange atmosphere given in this book of everything being okay, and calm, and 'nice' is very disturbing. Maybe she meant it to be that way. Maybe it's meant to make us think about how much people will accept. But I can't believe the victims could be so accepting.
A note on the translation - it was very jarring to have this translated into American English. Several times I was distracted by the story by the choice of words, and had to remind myself this had been translated, and these were not the words originally used by the author.
on 27 August 2015
Dorit, a childless woman of 50 is taken, in accordance with the rules of a society desperate to maximise its 'human capital', into a luxury facility - The Unit. It quickly becomes clear that the Unit is a last resting place for elder members of society who are deemed to be 'dispensable', where their sole function is to provide organs for more useful individuals and as guinea pigs in medical experiments. Dorit, and the friends that she makes in the Unit, are torn between the knowledge that their previous choices and/or circumstances have brought them to this point with the horror of its reality. Interestingly, in Holmqvist's universe, The Unit is not a secret, unknown Government conspiracy, but a conscious choice on which society appears to have agreed. Its inmates are therefore (partly) responsible for their own fate.
This is an original, haunting and rather beautiful story that is ultimately heart-breaking. It is clear that Dorit is very far from ready for the Knacker's Yard, but she is utterly powerless in the face of a society that has turned its back on its older citizens. Cleverly, The Unit is not an action-adventure, in which Dorit rages against the dying of the light or morphs into a Grey-haired James Bond. Instead, it is about the little victories and defeats that are achieved and/or suffered in the face of a brutal reality. Although allegorical, The Unit resonates with reality, given the lack of respect that is given to older people in our own society and is thought-provoking and, in its quiet way, devastating.
Ninni Holmqvist's dystopian debut novel was published in 2010 in an English translation by Marlaine Delargy. Despite living in Shropshire, Delargy sprinkles a few trans-Atlanticisms into her text.
In a Sweden of the future, 50-year old women and 60-year old men without children or spouses, and who have no essential societal or economic responsibilities are considered to be "dispensable" and are taken to live in a Reserve Bank Unit for the remainder of their lives. There they are looked after and nourished, so that when the need arises their organs and other body parts can be harvested and, if necessarily, stored to improve the lives of people in society who create more for the national economy. This is not a Big Brother imposition but has been arrived at democratically through a national referendum as befits its Nordic location. However, it seems likely that men and women in the initially-identified dispensable categories would be in the minority. Since we are told that numbers of incoming `dispensables' are declining plans will need to be drawn up to identify the next categories.
Many of those coming into the Unit have never been treated with such respect and humanity before and so are happy to comply with what is expected of them. They are free to explore and develop new interests, occupations and even relationships, although this cannot alter the fateful decision about their `dispensability'. Intellectuals populate the unit, since "people who read books tend to be dispensable". Repayment is through participation in medical, physical or psychological studies, and through donations of various organs until the `final donation' of a heart, second kidney or remaining vital organ is required.
The narrator is Dorrit Weger, a not-so-successful writer who had been living alone in a run-down house with her dog, Jock. She had been having an affair with Nils who, when asked by Dorrit to leave his wife and live with her, thereby disqualifying her from going into the Unit, declines. Quite rightly, it is Jock rather than Nils that Dorrit will miss after she is taken by taxi to the Second Unit.
The author sets her story in a future that seems quite possible, a realistic progression of a welfare state at the beginning of the 21st century. The Units themselves are not at all threatening, as Dorrit finds, "It was more comfortable than I could have imagined. A room of my own with a bathroom, or rather an apartment of my own, because there were two rooms: a bedroom and a living room with a kitchenette. It was light and spacious, furnished in a modern style and tastefully decorated in muted colours" Even the presence of the monitoring cameras and microphones is soon forgotten. For a day or two, new arrivals may be nervous and unsettled, but the friendly staff and supportive `dispensables' soon calm their fears.
By focussing primarily on the interactions and relationships between Dorrit and the other `dispensables', the author does not involve the reader in the everyday operation and inner workings of the Unit, experiments are arranged and populated by subjects and controls, but even when the results are unexpected they are presented in an unemotional manner. The important issue is to have identified the scientific reasons why the experiment yielded the outcome that it did. However, the idea that organ donations would be viable from subjects who had been involved in recent medical experiments, including `nuclear testing', whatever that is, is somewhat fanciful.
Dorrit's artistic friend Majken has an exhibition in the Unit but it is only in describing its aftermath that we are reminded why Dorrit is there. She meets a fellow writer, Johannes, and they become romantically involved. Most of their time is spent together, living in the way that was demanded and expected outside the Unit. However, Dorrit's pregnancy brings with it a further demonstration of her `dispensability'. She can choose to have the foetus transferred to a "useful" person outside the Unit, or have the baby and immediately give it up for adoption. The baby is offered, just like an organ, to those making a positive contribution to society.
Until this point in the story, the world outside the Unit has only occasionally been mentioned, mainly when Dorrit is dreaming of life with Jock and Nils. Certainly the outside world has already forgotten her and her fellow `dispensables'. The Unit has no windows through which to view the world left behind, although making contact turns out to be surprisingly easy. The outside world is now brought centre stage by the author as a result of Dorrit's chance meeting with a sympathetic nurse who gives Dorrit a key card and the necessary password to allow her to escape. This changes the nature of the novel which, to its detriment, now becomes concerned with whether Dorrit will be able to keep hiding the key card from the cameras? if she can, will she try to escape? if she does, will she succeed? We also find out that not everything that Dorrit has told us is the truth, "in this story I have not revealed the true circumstances under which I received the key card".
The language of the novel, well translated, is cool and precise, with emotion kept tightly under control. The book shows how adaptable, even acquiescent, people are even when confronted by inhuman situations and choices. Ultimately, however, Dorrit's voice failed to convince me once she had met the nurse who offers her a third option. The author appears to have become just as much trapped within the Unit as has Dorrit. However,for most of the time this is an impressive first novel that poses some significant questions about personal ethics and morality
The Unit bears more than a passing resemblence to Kazuo Ishiguro's masterful Never Let Me Go. The Unit was published slightly later, but close enough in time for plausible deniability.
The novel is set in a near future Sweden which has voted to take people who are clearly never going to be needed (age 50 for women, age 60 for men) and use them for medical experimentation and organ donation. We follow the life of Dorrit, a lonely 50 year old woman who never had children and never married despite a late, half-hearted attempt to snare a married man. We see her admission to the Unit, the medical facility that will be her new home until she has donated vital organs and get some perspective on the rather sad life she has led up to that point. Dorrit had been a moderately successful writer, but in future world writers are not seen as economically necessary. The only people who are needed are those with children or the lucky few whose work skills are sufficiently scarce to make then needed by the nation. Dorrit and her fellow un-needed people have generally led solitary lives. Their absence is hardly noticed and most have drifted towards their admission date with little resistance.
Inside the Unit, there is a thriving but institutionalised community. Every month, a banquet is held to welcome the new intake. There are boutique shops, cafes, gardens, social activities, swimming and sports facilities. The irony is that, for many residents, their short time in the Unit is happier and more fulfilling than life had ever been on the outside. The implication, clearly, is that when time is limited you value it and make more of it than when it seems infinite. And this cashless, care-free society is genuinely paradisiac, except that there is no way out, no external windows, no privacy and no sense of the passage of time. Festivals are not celebrated; external news is irrelevant. Oh, and there's... <<shudder>> ... no alcohol! And, of course, many of the residents are in various stages of induced disease or carry the scars and disabilities associated with having spare parts removed. It is a sugar coated horror.
There is plot development as, just like in Never Let Me Go, rumours of a way out emerge. It provides some suspense, but the plot is secondary to the depiction of this utopia and the characterisation. Some may see some of the characters as rather cliched but put together, they represent a whole psyche. They allow the reader to re-evaluate his or her own life and learned fatalism. The reader will inevitably self-identify with either the needed or the un-needed category. Being needed won't necessarily make you think that the program of medical experimentation is justified, but will make the reader see Dorrit and her fellow travellers as deserving of pity rather than deserving of opportunity. It's quite subtle, but it's there. Middle aged readers, even those who are needed, might ask themselves whether they are just treading water until they die or whether they are actually also living for the moment.
The ending, without giving anything away, is deeply troubling.
In the final analysis, it doesn't really matter whether Ninni copied Ish or Ish copied Ninni - The Unit is a sublime book in its own right, written with perfect pace and plain but beautiful prose. Both books stand alone on their own merits.
on 21 January 2012
We are introduced to Dorrit and her journey as she arrives in the Unit and explains how she came to be there. How the people end up in the unit and what their purpose is, what they go through and the people she meets and friendships she makes. Dorrit makes a few special friendships and one develops into something more than she could ever have dreamed of.
I found the book really slow going and to be honest nothing really happened until half way through and even then it wasn't a huge oh my God, it was very gradual. Everything is explained out and we are taken through the daily ritual until some kind of routine is established. The donations and experiments, side effects, the ups and downs and how they get through what they face everyday.
Despite it being slow I actually quite liked the book. The idea is for me totally new, I have never read anything like that before and it stays with you after you finish. The end disappointed me a bit because of how it turned, an unexpected twist but some people may actually like it. If you fancy something different and don't mind it being slow paced it is definitely worth reading, 3/5 for me.
on 6 January 2012
Throughout the Twentieth Century apocolyptic and dystopian futures have been explored through numerous books, films, plays, and tv shows. The focus over this time has changed, from exploring the consequences of war, natural disaster, nuclear development, and technological advances, to name but a few. Now what we may be seeing is a movement to explore our contemporary fears about our aging and rapidly desensitized society. Holmqvist has penned a book which has haunted me since I read it, and the numerous people with whom I discussed some of the issues raised in the book as I read it. It is well written, has absolutely engaging themes, and presents a vision of the future that I could utterly see as becoming a reality. A 100% recommended title.
I have been reading great reviews for this book for a few years now and final got round to reading it on my holidays this year. I'm really sad to say it was quite a disappointment. I expected a gritty, distopian story but got a strangely lite novel which started well, but really didn't add up on numerous occasions. Mixed in with this came the love story, which I didn't feel worked or enhanced the story, I kept expecting there to be some kind of back story to the male in the relationship, a twist in the tale, but it never appeared. Some of the other characters were mildly interesting but very 2D.
Not a hard read, so I did find it vaguely engaging, but somehow unsatisfying. I wouldn't recommend this now.
on 30 May 2013
As others have said, the theme of organ donation is similar to Never Let Me Go, but still different enough for me to really enjoy it, albeit a chilling experience, as the story appears to be set in the not too distant future (they still eat Port Salut, read newspapers etc).
I found it very well written, poignant and I cared about the characters, (perhaps because I am close to their age!)
The relationship between Dorritt and Johannes was beautifully told, I felt their intense love coming right through to me.
I read the book quickly over two evenings, as I was so absorbed in the story.
on 15 July 2013
A phenomenally good book; well written, well conceived, easy to read and impossible to put down.
Not an book to be read lightly though, and not easily to be forgotten.
It is about oppressed minorities and unconscious prejudice. It is about youth and age, the heart-ache of the childless, compassion and cruelty. It is about grief, and redemption.
It is about the celebration of the human spirit and the condemnation of humanity. It is about the value of love, of art and of the human soul.
It is about a woman who misses her dog.