Book Review: The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
In the Sweden of the near future women who reach the age of 50 and men who reach the age of 60 without having successfully acquired a partner or had children are deemed “dispensable” and sent to live in “a unit.” These units appear at first glance to be like a high-class retirement home, and indeed they have all the amenities. The residents, however, are required both to participate in medical experiments and to donate various organs and body parts up until their “final donation” of their heart anywhere from a year or a few years after their arrival in the unit. Dorrit arrives at the unit depressed, but accepting of her fate as the result of her independent nature, but when she falls in love, she starts to question everything.
The entire concept of this book intrigued me as it is clearly a dystopia whose focus is on the older generations instead of teenagers and young people. The concept itself is of course frightening to any of us who have come to grips with the fact that some day we will be elderly too. This dystopia is also unique though in that it examines the possible future movement of Swedish society, which is vastly different from American society.
The writing is entirely from the perspective of Dorrit. Although it is clear she is writing from some point after the events occurred, Holmqvist eloquently allows her voice to change to reflect her changing ideas on society, her friends, her family, and her own life. When Dorrit first arrives in the unit, she attempts to defend herself saying that women used to be raised to be independent instead of with such a high focus on producing children that will add product to the GNP. It’s not as if she didn’t want a partner, she did, but it didn’t happen. So why is that her fault? Deeper issues are addressed too such as why does only a new family unit count and not siblings? What about pets? Don’t they need us? The vast implications of such a focus on interpersonal relationships found in the traditional family unit are subtly addressed. What type of people tend to be alone family-less by the age of 50 or 60? One resident in the unit’s library, for instance, points out that
“People who read books…tend to be dispensable. Extremely.” (Page 26)
Of course the setting of this dystopia also brings up other interesting issues that Holmqvist handles quite well. The dystopian setting allows the author to address the perpetual loss of friends that the elderly face as well as seeing themselves and their friends sicken mentally and physically. Placing it in a society in which this is exacerbated by science naturally gives it another level as well as a welcome distance for the elderly reader. This of course is a large part of what makes this dystopia different from the typical YA version. Instead of dramatizing the challenges young people typically face such as their world widening and new knowledge being imparted, this one shows how the world becomes smaller and acceptance that it’s too late to change the world becomes the norm.
Perhaps the most universally interesting issue this dystopia addresses is how much the individual should be willing to sacrifice for the greater good. The residents in the unit are constantly being told that their discomfort in an experiment could improve the lives of hundreds of needed people. Or that they should be perfectly fine with “donating” one of their corneas and going half-blind if it means that a nurse with three children can remain a contributing member of society. While some of the residents grow resentful of this concept, referring to the unit as a free-range organ farm, Dorrit finds leaning on this perceived value helps her with her depression in the unit.
“Otherwise I would feel powerless, which I essentially am, but I can cope with that as long as it doesn’t feel that way too.” (Page 71)
Clearly this book makes one think not just about the issues the elderly face but also about how society as a whole treats them and makes them feel. It also firmly addresses just how much individuality and choice it is justifiable to give up for the greater good. The ending completely shocked me and has left me with even more to ponder than the points given above, but I want to leave those for the future reader to discover.
I am incredibly glad this work was translated into English, and I highly recommend it to everyone, but especially to dystopia and scifi lovers, as well as those interested in sociology and psychology.
5 out of 5 stars