The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy
Other Press, 2009
Fiction; 268 pgs
Source: Postal Mail Group (Borrowed)
As Holmqvist describes it in her novel, The Unit, it started as a debate by a new political party that wasn't taken too seriously. Overtime, however, the idea grew, taking on new forms and growing in popularity. Soon, it became a way of life. Men over sixty and women over fifty who were single, childless, and without jobs valued by society as contributing to the greater good are now considered dispensable and forced to give their bodies up for science. Sequestered in one location, they seemingly live out their final years in comfort--their every need met. There is a beautiful garden right out of a Monet painting, walkways, and shops, restaurants, and a theater. It's an indoor heaven, of sorts. Or so they want you to believe. Their every move and word is monitored. The dispensable people's purpose now is to take part in various psychological and scientific studies--and donate organs as needed.
Set in a Dystopian Sweden, The Unit asks the question what, if any, is the value of life? Who decides? Dorrit Weger has just turned 50, and reluctantly settles into life on the unit. As the novel progresses, she reflects on her life and what has led her to her this place. Growing up, she was taught to be self-reliant and to go after her dreams. She chose to write, and lived sparsely but comfortably with her beloved dog Jock. It was easy to identify with Dorrit and understand why she made the life choices she did. How was she to know the political winds would change so drastically over the course of her lifetime, earning her the label of a dispensable person? It is not something she agrees with, but has little choice other than to accept it.
Holmqvist does a great job of capturing the range of emotions and thoughts Dorrit goes through over the course of the novel. She is angry and sad, resigned, and scared. There are also moments of happiness and hope. We see the connections Dorrit makes with her friends who are in the same situations, and we go through the grief process as we have to say goodbye when they make their "final donations." The people who run the unit try to make the process as humane as possible, and yet, there is nothing humane about it. It's disturbing how easily accepted all of this is. And yet, is it all that surprising? I thought it was very telling when Dorrit is told she can know the person who is receiving organs, but the person receiving them is not told anything about the donor. Do this to save an important person's life! But obviously the donor isn't important enough to be recognized. It's a form of manipulation, to make it easier for those dispensables who have to give up their lives. There's something terribly wrong with that, as if the situation wasn't terrible enough as it was.
The Unit is more of a quiet book without any big plot twists or major climatic moments. However, it is very thought provoking. Dorrit's story is a compelling one that was hard to put down. I wanted so much for life to be different for the people deemed dispensable. I had never heard of this book before it arrived in the mail as one of my postal mail book group reads. I am glad it came my way.
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