Sunday, 27 May 2012
The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
Set in Sweden in the near future, Dorrit, our main character, tells her story in the first person. We enter her world while she is waiting outside her ramshackle cottage for a large car with blacked-out windows to arrive and take her and her meagre luggage away. She is going to The Unit, an establishment in an unknown part of the country that voluntarily houses women over 50 and men over 60 in constant luxury for the remaining part of their lives. In this society older citizens without children or dependents and without a progressive job, are considered to be a drain on the whole and therefore dispensible, and being unnecessary in this way are largely ostricised and unable to get financial help in any form. The alternative is to opt for The Unit, a huge, enclosed place with theatres, art galleries, sports facilities, cinemas, cafes, therapies, restaurants, dancing, parties, enormous gardens... it goes on, and all without money or financial worries. The catch is that to become necessary to society you have to take part in medical experiments, gentle ones at first to ease you in, then you start donating parts of yourself, to enable the necessary members of society to live. Eventually, on average after 4 years in The Unit, you will make a final donation ending your life. These final donations, such as a heart and lung transplant, will only be considered when all other avenues have been explored, but everyone at The Unit knows that their day will come, voluntarily or not, and this is their contribution to society.
Already this scenario throws a lot of questions into the mix, and then it complicates it further because all of the people in there are artists, writers, sculptors, photographers, from the creative sides of life and therefore have a lot in common. For probably the first time in a long time they have support, from each other, friendship, common-ground, and even love. What if, in an alienating world, the first time that you truly encounter humanity is when your days are numbered? What then?
We explore all of this through Dorrit's eyes. All of her questions about how she ended up in this situation, agonizing over saying goodbye to her life outside, where her mother had encouraged independence, and a terminated pregnancy while a student had jeopardised forming attatchments, so that when this regime, at first loathed as extreme, but gaining favour until finally attaining power, came about, she was on the wrong side of the policies and labelled 'unnecessary'. Now, on the inside, the unthinkable happens. Dorrit finds love and more, but where to go now?
I knew this would be a hard read, dystopian novels usually are, but I did not expect it to be so overwhelmingly sad. The sparse and economical writing makes it even more heartbreaking. I must have been in tears about 5 times during its duration, I had to stop reading it on the bus to and from work. It is unbelievably sad, and unexpectedly so. Futuristic society novels can sometimes have a coldness that enables you to distance yourself a little from them but I found this to be the opposite. I totally identified with Dorrit, I was in her world immediately, and although it is a different kind of world, it was not so far away as you would think. Peoples kindness comes through and far from being clinical, The Unit is a reasonably safe environment, and supposedly voluntary, presenting you with so many grey areas from which to explore your ethical standpoint. Of course it is despicable, but it is dressed up in a way that makes you consider the option with much more to go on, than in say Never Let Me Go by Kasuo Ishiguro, which explores similar but ultimately different themes.
I loved this book, it sucked me in from the first page and made me feel so much. I identified with many of the characters (if it were a true scenario I could very well be headed to The Unit myself in the not too distant future), it gave me so many powerful things to think about, and I found myself considering it when not reading it too. But mostly it was the emotional ride I was not expecting and it is this that gave me such a fruitful read. Any book that makes you think and feel is a winner to me and I certainly enjoyed this one.
It would be a great title for reading groups with so much to debate. A Reading Group Guide can be found for The Unit here.
Ninni Holmqvist is a featured author on GoodReads, use the link to read more.
This book was read for #6 of my personal challenges to read at least one dystopian novel this year.