The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist (translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy)
Published by Oneworld Publications, 2018 (first published in 2006)
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
There’s an unexpected gentleness to this speculative dystopian tale. Though the contextual justification is only ever hinted at, all women and men who remain unmarried and childless by the time they reach 50 or 60 respectively must enter a Unit. Here, they will be treated to a life of luxury, with their own apartments, and access to unlimited spa facilities and leisure activities. In addition to this, however, they must partake in clinical trials and serve as organ donors, until the time comes for their Final Donation – the procedure that will end their lives.
Our narrator, Dorrit, is a new arrival at one such Unit. She has largely resigned herself to this fate, but when she begins to form meaningful friendships, and to fall for a fellow inmate, her resolve is called into question. This setup presents a lot of potential for melodrama, and though the narrative presents us with a number of twists, it never tips into farce. There’s a calmness to Dorrit’s worldview that remains largely consistent throughout her story. This is befitting of the clinical environment she finds herself in, and her presumed role as a somewhat passive, submissive test subject. It also goes a long way to show how normalised the disturbing practice has become for the inhabitants of this imagined future.
As gripping and easy to fly through as it is, the book ruminates on a number of interesting themes. Namely, how we as a society define success and value in life. Only those who have children, or who have risen to the top in a ‘respected’ profession, are guaranteed exemption from The Unit. There is obvious commentary here on the likes of class snobbery and the role of women. I also loved how much emphasis was placed on highlighting the importance of different types of love. Romantic and parental love are clearly given priority, but our narrator often discusses her love for her sister, her love for her friends, and perhaps most importantly, her love for the dog she was forced to give up upon entering The Unit. She views all of these bonds as equally formative and valuable, and wonders why they don’t constitute being ‘needed’ within society the way other relationships do. This, to me, was the real heart of the novel.
As Dorrit’s situation becomes more complex and she inches ever closer to the reality of her Final Donation, the book also examines the will of the people versus the will of the state, and asks what true body autonomy may look like in this new world.
I hope more of Holmqvist’s work has been translated into English. Delargy has done a fantastic job of preserving our heroine’s singular sense of poise and humanity in the face of great sadness.
If you’d like to read The Unit, you can pick up a copy from Book Depository by clicking here.