Sunday, 6 March 2011

18/111 - The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

This is a book that jumped to the top of my list, as I’m due to start a work placement at Oneworld later this month. I didn’t buy it for that reason, though. I already owned the book after having bought it spontaneously on the strength of the blurb alone. The front cover declares this book to be essential for Orwell and Huxley fans, and so I decided to go for it. The novel is also written by a woman AND translated from Swedish, which ticks two of the boxes that are evidently in my blind spot.

The Unit is told from the point of view of Dorrit, a fifty-year-old childless woman. Dorrit inhabits a dystopian future where people are judged on their usefulness; people with children or who hold significant roles are indispensable; everyone else is dispensable. Once a person reaches a certain age (50 for women; 60 for men), and they haven’t achieved certain things - the most important being the bearing of children – then they are taken away to a unit. In this unit they live and form relationships with other dispensable individuals. They are participants in medical studies and parts of their bodies are harvested over the course of several years to indispensable individuals until they are used up. Dorrit tells the story of her arrival at the unit and the life she leads there, whilst also reflecting on and mourning for the life she has left behind.

This book was extremely compelling, and having recently read Never Let Me Go, I found plenty of similar themes, although the idea behind The Unit is somewhat reversed – here people are used for parts towards the end of their lives, rather than being bred especially for this purpose. In any case, there are plenty of ideas and conflicts surrounding personhood, what it means to be alive and how easy or difficult it is to measure the value of a human life.

Like Never Let Me Go, the setting also seems pretty contemporary, which is kind of chilling. There is no far-future feeling, and the idea that this could happen at some point soon in our future is pretty chilling. There is also a touch of The Handmaid’s Tale, in that Dorrit and the other women in the unit are there particularly because they have not had children, and there is an underlying feeling that children are a scarce resource in Dorrit’s world.

Over the course of the novel, Dorrit also meets and falls in love with a man, and the explorations of their relationship and their gender roles is very interesting. Dorrit describes her arousal at ‘traditional’ gender roles, such as female passivity and experiencing a man’s superior physical strength – something which is taboo in her society.

The unit itself seems like a fairly civilised and luxurious place. The inmates/patients have whatever they need and more. However there is a lot of implied violence and personal violations in this novel, and a deep feeling of unrest which the writer evokes really well without going into explicit details, and I really felt that this was well balanced with Dorrit’s accounts of the relationships she forms within the unit and what they mean to her.

Very moving and thought-provoking, and a little bleak. Definitely recommended if you liked Never Let Me Go.

Next time: Things We Didn’t See Coming by Stephen Amsterdam

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