Review: The Unit

Dystopian literature is one of my favorite genres, perhaps the favorite. The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist was one I´ve been wanting to read for a while but somehow never got around to. I´m happy I found the German edition in my library (since it´s originally Swedish I thought it didn´t really matter if I read the English or the German translation).

The Unit is set in a society in which people are classed into two groups, those who are needed and those who are dispensable. Dorrit is a novelist, relatively poor, childless, not in a romantic relationship, and has just turned 50; therefore she has become dispensible, a burden on society. Dorrit is brought to the Unit, a place with every convenience (art galleries, a gym, a theatre etc), where she is among equals, and a place where she will be subjected to experiments and organ donation until her death.

The Unit takes the same approach as Ishiguro´s Never Let Me Go, and envisions a group of people as a biological resource that has to cater to the needs of the rest of the population. In this case it is women from 50 years on and men from 60 years on who have become dispensible and who are called on to contribute to the national economy instead of having to be supported by those who are needed. The focus of Holmqvist´s critique is as such more of an economic nature, her dystopia warns from regarding people only in terms of cost-benefit, their contribution to the economy, and thereby reducing them to numbers.

The main character Dorrit has to leave behind her house, her dog and end her affair with a younger married man when she turns fifty but adjusts very quickly and calmly to life in the unit. For the first time she finds herself surrounded by people like her and finds friends and love. She is not angry and not a heroine who tries to fight the system. Instead, Dorrit is quite happy, accepts her situation and can devote time to her writing. It took me a while to understand that Dorrit was not a fighter, that the system in The Unit has other ways than surveillance and violence to ensure that the dispensables accept their situation.

This dystopia is especially scary for me because I am a woman, because I´m not sure that I want to have children, because I am a humanities student, because I will most likely not have a career that will leave me well-off. In this dystpopia, independence makes dispensible. I don´t know a lot about the situation in Sweden, but with the apparently low birth rates in Western countries and the media and politicians trying to tell us that some nationalities will die out if female university graduates don´t start reproducing, I can see what makes a writer envision a dystopia as this.

This novel is (and I´m commenting on the translation here) well-written with a simplistic and sparse language. It evokes a very different atmosphere from Never Let Me Go, not as dreamy and beautiful, Holmqvist has a colder, sparer style.

There are some aspects about The Unit that I did not enjoy as much (Dorrit´s regard for gentlemenly behaviour and conservative love which is apparently looked at as a transgression, her joy at being lead (when dancing and in her relationship), and something unexpected that happens later but I can´t really spell it out without spoiling too much, I´ll just say that it felt out of place, especially with the rest of Holmqvist´s critique), but this is still a very good example of dystopian literature.

Some great passages (found them in English on the net):

It was more comfortable than I could have imagined. A room of my own with a bathroom, or rather a suite 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 colors. True, the tiniest nook or cranny was monitored by cameras, and I would soon realize there were hidden microphones there too.

People who read books,” he went on, “tend to be dispensable. Extremely.

And life is capital. A capital that is to be divided fairly among the people in a way that promotes reproduction and growth, welfare and democracy. I am only a steward, taking care of my vital organs.

In here I can be myself, on every level, completely openly, without being rejected or mocked, and without the risk of not being taken seriously. I am not regarded as odd or as some kind of alien or some troublesome fifth wheel that people don’t know what to do with. Here I’m like everyone else. I fit in. I count.

Also reviewed by:

The Literary Stew

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24 thoughts on “Review: The Unit

  1. This sounds really fascinating – the use of words sound a bit like in the film Gattica (Valids / In-Valids). I also enjoy reading books in the dystopian genre.

  2. This book is now added to Mount TBR. I love dystopias, just like you and so, of course, there’s no way around this one. Great review!

  3. Lovely review! I will add this book to my ‘TBR’ list. ‘Die Entbehrlichen’ looks like an interesting title 🙂 I love the cover of the book too.

    I found the quote – “People who read books,” he went on, “tend to be dispensable. Extremely.“ – extremely scary. When I talk to my Russian friends sometimes, they tell me that during communist times it was illegal (for both men and women) to stay at home and not work. I just remembered that, when I read your review.

    1. It is scary isn´t it? But then that probably makes the best dystopias 🙂
      I didn´t know that about Russia, it´s very interesting. It does make sense in the communism system though. Thanks for telling me! 🙂

      1. Yes, especially the fact the book readers are dispensable – I will become dispensable immediately, in that kind of environment 🙂

        I also didn’t know about the old Russian rule, till I heard about it – I can’t believe the kind of individual freedom that people lost / didn’t have during those times.

  4. This sounds great. I’m not really a dystopian fan but this doesn’t really sound like one at all because everything is so relevant. It also sounds a little similar to Margaret Atwood’s ‘The handmaid’s tale’ although I read it awhile ago. Society and the government are so worried about the aging population. This is increasingly becoming a problem here in Australia although we’re experiencing a little baby boom. One of our politicians a few years back (he’s retired now, thank goodness) even had the gall to quip to have “one for the dad, one for the mum and one for the nation”. Yes, women should all have a baby for the nation.

    I’m jealous you can read in German. It opens up another whole area of literature! 🙂

    1. I always feel that the best dystopian books show us what´s wrong with the direction our society is taking and that they are relevant. But this one is quite new so perhaps it feel even more relevant to us 🙂 I really love The Handmaid´s Tale as well.

      Whoa, sounds like a nutter! Reminds me a bit of of the third reich, producing babies for the nation! Interesting to hear about the Australian situation, I think it´s quite similar to Germany.

      Hehe, well I´m not that great a fan of German lit, but it helps because sometimes world lit is already translated into German and only much later into English.

  5. I haven’t heard of this one. The concept of dystopia in this book sounds like an interesting one. It does sound a little similar to Never Let Me Go but with it’s own twist. I enjoyed reading your thoughts about the implications of this book to single, independent women. 🙂

    1. I think you´d really enjoy this one, as you like dystopias as well. And it is quite scary to read about targeting single independent women.

  6. i remember hearing about this a while back ,a new take on a story thats been done before ,great review ,all the best stu

  7. You are so right in saying that dystopian literature is especially scary to read as a woman. Our ability to grow people means that it’s either all our fault or that we have to make it all better! Stupid reproduction…

    Off topic, I didn’t realise that Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh had corresponded (In The Waiting Line). I bet that’ll be a great read.

    1. That´s right, whatever we do. . 😉

      Oh yes, they wrote really fun letters to amuse themselves. Can definitely recommend it 🙂

    1. Hey, thanks for stopping by! I love the title of your blog, will need to spend some time browsing 🙂

      Thanks for linking to my review!

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