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The Unitby Ninni Holmqvist
Synopses & Reviews
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.
Here's a modest proposal: Now that Americans are raiding Medicare and unemployment funds more desperately than ever before, why don't we dispense with these mushy-gushy entitlement programs and lock up all the single people over 60 in a prison where we can harvest their organs? That way, these "dispensables," who aren't bolstering the nation's GDP, can contribute something to keep the prosperity of... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) the "needed" citizens on track. Such is the horrifying premise behind Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist's first novel, "The Unit," a haunting, deadpan tale set vaguely in the Scandinavian future. Actually, in Holmqvist's book the situation is even more grotesque: In a nice sexist flourish, single women without children are classified as "dispensable" at 50, 10 years earlier than the men. So it is that one spring morning, Dorrit Weger finds herself standing outside her ramshackle house, waiting, like so much trash, for the SUV that will whisk her away to the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. Her lover has refused to leave his wife to marry her. Her freelance income barely covers the mortgage. Her only dependent is a soulful dog. The economy needs her not. It's one of Holmqvist's many nifty reversals that Dorrit already knows exactly what the Unit has in store for her: involuntary participation in drug trials and psychological experiments, forced kidney and lung donations. Her awareness is a change of pace for us. Loads of books and films have imagined worlds where humans prey upon the bodies of others — "The Handmaid's Tale," "Never Let Me Go" and "Soylent Gren" all come to mind — but the convention of this cannibalistic genre is not to expose the use of bodies until deep into the story. In "The Unit," however, the dirty secret isn't secret; it's accepted national policy and not much cloaked in euphemism. "In a few weeks, I'm going in to donate my pancreas to a student nurse with four kids," one character casually mentions over dinner. The revelation, instead, is that the Unit turns out to be as much paradise as hell. The residents live in comfortable one-bedroom apartments. Their giant prison gleams with top-of-the-line luxuries, among them a library, an art gallery, a cafe, a gym, a music store and several fancy boutiques. They eat five-course meals. Best of all, for them, everything is free. Dorrit's favorite place is the Unit's enormous winter garden, where a living replica of Monet's Giverny wonderland thrives in a balmy artificial climate while snow piles up outside. The garden's lush plants serve as a pretty backdrop for many of the novel's scenes, but they're also a deft symbol for Dorrit and her ilk. Many of the Unit's residents are hothouse flowers: writers, artists, homosexuals and intellectuals whose pursuit of love, beauty or freedom has set them at odds with their marrying-and-producing peers. As one administrator observes, most of them never "experience the feeling of belonging, of being part of something with other people" until they're confined within the Unit's walls. Housed all together, freed from financial stress, drawn close by the looming prospect of death, these dispensables often find the golden apples they've been seeking all their lives, even as their "biological material" is harvested year by year. Holmqvist's spare prose interweaves the Unit's pleasures and cruelties with exquisite matter-of-factness, so that readers actually begin to wonder: On balance, is life better as a pampered lab bunny or as a lonely indigent? But then she turns the screw, presenting a set of events so miraculous and abominable that they literally made me gasp. By then, it's clear that even for married couples with children, the world outside the Unit has turned into a nightmare. And the issue of whether Dorrit is happier in her gleaming Dickensian prison gives way to a larger question: Who could bear to live in the mechanistic world that created such a place? Reviewed by Marcela Valdes, who is a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"The Unit" is a gripping exploration of a society in the throes of an experiment, in which the "dispensable" people--those in their 60s, childless, or unemployed--are convinced of the importance of sacrificing for the "necessary" ones.
About the Author
Ninni Holmqvist was born in 1958 and lives in Skåne, Sweden. She made her debut in 1995 with the short story collection Suit [Kostym] and has published two further collections of short stories since then. She also works as a translator. The Unit marks Holmqvist’s debut as a novelist.
Marlaine Delargy works as a translator and adult learning support tutor. She has translated novels by Åsa Larsson and Johan Theorin, among others, and serves on the editorial board of the Swedish Book Review. She lives in Shropshire, England.
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