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Review: The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

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The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
Literature, Translation, Dystopian Society
Trade Paperback (OTHER PRESS, 272 pages, $14.95)
ISBN# 1590513134
One day in early spring, Dorrit Weger is checked into the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. She is promised a nicely furnished apartment inside the Unit, where she will make new friends, enjoy the state of the art recreation facilities, and live the few remaining days of her life in comfort with people who are just like her. Here, women over the age of fifty and men over sixty–single, childless, and without jobs in progressive industries–are sequestered for their final few years; they are considered outsiders. In the Unit they are expected to contribute themselves for drug and psychological testing, and ultimately donate their organs, little by little, until the final donation. Despite the ruthless nature of this practice, the ethos of this near-future society and the Unit is to take care of others, and Dorrit finds herself living under very pleasant conditions: well-housed, well-fed, and well-attended. She is resigned to her fate and discovers her days there to be rather consoling and peaceful. But when she meets a man inside the Unit and falls in love, the extraordinary becomes a reality and life suddenly turns unbearable. Dorrit is faced with compliance or escape, and…well, then what?
THE UNIT is a gripping exploration of a society in the throes of an experiment, in which the “dispensable” ones are convinced under gentle coercion of the importance of sacrificing for the “necessary” ones. Ninni Holmqvist has created a debut novel of humor, sorrow, and rage about love, the close bonds of friendship, and about a cynical, utilitarian way of thinking disguised as care.

Dystopian Dreams For Any Reader (4 stars)

At the age of fifty Dorrit Weger is whisked away to a place commonly known as The Unit. Here she will have a comfortable apartment all to herself, access to nice shops and leisurely activities galore, as well as fine meals she doesn't have to prepare for herself. There are parties and a beautiful winter garden to roam in, athletic facilities to enjoy and a library stocked with the latest books and movies. But there is a price for the luxury afforded The Unit's residents; their bodies and ultimately, their lives. Dorrit and her companions have been deemed "dispensable" by the government and thus they are sent to The Unit to live out the rest of their brief years as lab rats and organ donors for the greater good.

At first life within The Unit isn't so terrible. For the first time in her life Dorrit feels needed and has a social circle that she has much in common with. She misses her dog and parts of her life before The Unit but slowly this fades giving way to a certain level of acceptance. She doesn't suffer much at first taking part in simple physical testing and eventually donating a kidney but all residents know that in due time they will make their "final donation". As her friends slowly begin to go through their "final donations" Dorrit falls in love with Johannes, a fellow writer with whom she develops a deep relationship. But when she discovers that despite her fifty-years-of-age she has become pregnant the idea of the two gaining their freedom—as they are now "needed" by their offspring—may not be so easily obtained.

I've always loved a good story of dystopian societies and the way they make us question our own social and moral obligations to the world. Yet it isn't so easy to find one that isn't so heavily weighed down by its own attempt at teaching a lesson that it is stifling. The Unit is far from being stifling. It doesn't pretend to be something it is not, the straight-forward beauty of the premise is executed so simply but richly that I couldn't put the book down. As the sun's first rays of morning were breaking over the horizon I finished The Unit with a sense of peace.

With the average lifespan of human beings having risen drastically in the past hundred years it is not so difficult to imagine a place like The Unit becoming a reality. It is because of this that I found the story somewhat haunting but not so horrible. There is a distinct dilemna I think every reader will feel very differently about when reading this one. Would you be willing to shorten your own life for a few years of luxury and knowing you've done something good for society? Others may get something else out of The Unit but that is what I was left wondering to myself.

I highly recommend this if you liked George Orwell or Ayn Rand when you were made to read them in high school. This is the perfect read for someone looking for a good bit of dystopian literature without getting headaches trying to wrap our mind around the concepts and questions.

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