The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

The Unit is a book which centers on The Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. In the society, set presumably in the not too distant future, women and men of a certain age are expected to have families; if not, they are taken to, colloquially, The Unit. It is essentially a compound where these adults without families are given living quarters, food, comfort and more. In exchange, they are expected to go through human experiments in search of cures for diseases and surgeries to donate their organs – all to benefit people on the outside, people with families.

The story opens with Dorrit, the female main character, who grapples with her new life inside the unit as a fifty-year-old woman. Each of the other people in the unit are also grappling with it in their own ways. Understandably, there are horrors of knowing that this is the place people go to have their biological material harvested or experimented on because they are seen as without family ties and without professional worth in the mainstream world.

Each of the characters, but especially Dorrit, seem accessible and real. Ninni Holmqvist, the author, is thoughtful to flesh out each character’s back story in such a manner that we see the diversity of people in the unit – that in this world, lots of different kinds of people are affected by this referendum. The concept of being childless, single, and in a job that isn’t deemed appropriate for contributing to society at large understandably will have an impact on people in different ways. It speaks of a society that values self-sufficiency until it doesn’t; placing more of an emphasis on taking care of others in a collective manner. The pain those in the unit feel is very real, as is the friendships they forge. As far as the friendship they build inside, which is rather understandable through shared pain and shared experiences, the one main issue I had was wishing for more background on some of the staff who worked in the unit.

The pace of the storyline worked – it isn’t about action, action, and more action the way a number of dystopian novels are these days. Perhaps this is because it centers around people 50 and older with no war to fight. It has more to do with the inner turmoil of the patients there. And even though those in charge strive to make the patients comfortable with free food, lodging, shopping, and gyms, it’s really only material comfort compared to what they go through. It’s a really interesting concept for a plot to make people materially wealthy surrounded by doctors and in a place where they know they are being collected for their biological use for science and others. That it is forced upon them makes it an interesting way to look at our psyches individually and collectively as well as pointing out flawed governmental decisions. Though Dorrit explains what happened in the government to institute such a thing, I would love to know more. The lack of further details, however, lends itself to filling out the details in our own heads regarding the political climate that could have led to this.

For the most part, I found the writing able to make me feel joy with the characters or sadness on their behalf. The only bad thing really was that it seemed to take a while to get to the climax. Everyone seems so resigned to their place there and even in anguish, it was difficult to know when the climax would take place. Holmqvist handled it really well – it seemed natural, even if slow, to give us time to build sympathy for the characters. I personally would have liked the climax to have come a little sooner, but it works for the story.

I’m an avid fan of dystopian novels, so I was happy to discover this through Words Without Borders. The ones, in my mind, that are the best are the ones that seem so plausible they are frightening. This is exactly that type of dystopian. It’s just enough like our world that it wouldn’t seem odd if it happened – only frighteningly devastating. I don’t agree with all the choices the characters made, but I am certain they are made for an impact.