The Unit

TheUnitShortly after her 50th birthday, Dorrit Wenger packs a suitcase of her most prized possessions, gets into a van, and checks into the Second Reserve Bank Unit. There, she and many other single childless women over 50 and single childless men over 60 are given comfortable apartments, free food at lovely restaurants, access to recreational facilities at no cost, and the opportunity to be a family to one another. The catch? Dorrit and the other “dispensables” at the unit must participate in medical experiments and donate their organs to people who have children or who have jobs that make a contribution to the betterment of society. Within a few years, each resident will make a final, fatal donation. The Unit, Ninni Holmqvist’s novel about Dorrit’s life in the Unit was first released in Sweden in 2006, and it makes its debut in the U.S. this week.

I’ve mentioned many times here that I love dystopian literature, but The Unit rattled me in a way few dystopian novels have. It hit me where I live. As I was reading, it was impossible for me to ignore the fact that, as a single woman without any children, I could easily be declared dispensable in the world of this novel. True, I’m a ways away from turning 50, but I’m also past the age where marriage and children appear to be a foregone conclusion. So I took this book personally.

Before arriving at the Unit, Dorrit seemed well contented with her life. Her main trouble was the knowledge that she was on her way to becoming dispensable. Her only serious unhappiness came from how society viewed her. When Dorrit arrives at the Unit, she and the other new arrivals are told that they will be much happier in the Unit because they will not be viewed as odd or eccentric, and they will, for the first time, be able to enjoy a sense of belonging. And the truth is that they do. Although Dorrit was not unhappy before, in the Unit she is able to enjoy some new and different types of happiness, largely through her connections with others. But is it worth it?

One of my favorite aspects of  The Unit was how well Holmqvist expresses the pleasures and pain involved in living alone. For example, when Dorrit explained how she felt about leaving her dog behind, she expressed perfectly how one comes to rely on a pet for regular doses of affection when that pet is your only day-to-day companion. The creators of the Unit would probably say that this affection doesn’t count and that Dorrit will be happier once she starts spending more time with other people. And as it turns out, Dorrit is happy to be surrounded by friends and to find a lover, but that doesn’t mean her previous life was miserable. Any sort of life is a mix of pleasure and pain.

Holmqvist also raises significant questions about what it means to make a contribution to society—to be needed. Is parenthood or a service job the only proper contribution? Many of the people in the Unit are artists and writers. When residents make donations, they are often told about the recipients (“a nurse with four children” or “a carpenter with three children and six grandchildren”). The implication is that the dispensible are giving their lives for people who matter, but who decides what does matter? Don’t all lives matter? Today, we may not take the organs of people we deem unimportant, but do we devalue the lives of certain people in less obvious ways?

The Unit has everything that I look for in a dystopian novel. It asks tough questions and causes me to reflect on the values I see expressed in the society around me. It’s a story that will stick with me.

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15 Responses to The Unit

  1. Danielle says:

    I’m going to go and see if my library is getting this one! Sounds good!

  2. This sounds like a tough but interesting read! Thanks for the review!

  3. Steph says:

    I saw this one available for ARC giveaways a while back and while I was intrigued, I feared it might be too similar in concept to Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and would wind up being derivative. It sounds like this did have a bit of a different spin on it, focusing more on the way single childless people can contribute to society and the struggles they face.

  4. I had to read this through twice. Then I added it to my wish list.

    Thank you for an informative review.

  5. litlove says:

    Wow – fascinating. I’m going to see whether it’s coming out in the UK. I do hope so, after this review!

  6. Teresa says:

    Danielle: I hope you have good luck at the library!

    Avisannschild: This book was particularly tough for me because of my own life situation. Almost too difficult to contemplate.

    Steph: It really is an entirely different spin from Never Let Me Go. I think having people put into the Unit instead of having them raised there makes a huge difference. That and the donors are not so very young.

    J.C. Montgomery: Thanks! I hope you enjoy it.

    litlove: I think this is being released in the UK this week as well, but I’m not 100% sure. I’ll cross my fingers for you.

  7. Tara says:

    I’m really intrigued by this! Thanks for the review, I’m sure I wouldn’t have heard of this otherwise.

  8. Jenny says:

    This literally gave me a chill. I think we do devalue people’s lives based on societal values — in the past it would have been racial discrimination, today perhaps based on poverty. This is all too plausible. Brrrrrr, you gotta love literary horror.

  9. Teresa says:

    Tara: I’m not sure I would have heard of this one wither if it hadn’t been a early review book on Library Thing. It released yesterday, and I’m hoping it gets some attention, but I haven’t seen much yet.

    Jenny: Yeah, I can totally see this idea of being dispensible applied to many different groups. I’m thinking now of Annie’s Ghost and the treatment of the disabled in the past. And then there are the more subtle ways that we devalue others. Really quite unsettling to think about–and even more so when you can clearly see how it could happen to you, as I could with this book.

  10. Dorothy W. says:

    Well, this sounds really good and really creepy. I haven’t read a whole lot of dystopian literature (Never Let Me Go, The Road) has really stuck with me.

    • Teresa says:

      Dorothy W: I’m a bit of a Dystopian lit junkie, so this was right up my alley, but I think it would interest others, too. I’d put it in between Never Let Me Go and The Road in its creepiness.

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  12. 3m says:

    I will definitely be looking into this one. I love dystopian fiction!

  13. Pingback: The Pub (2009) » Blog Archive » May and June ‘09 Reviews

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