D.M. Dutcher 's Reviews > The Unit

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
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Apr 23, 2012

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bookshelves: dystopia
Read in April, 2012

A bleak dystopia about a future Sweden where if you reach 50 for women or 60 for men without providing worth to society, you are taken to the Unit. It's a very pleasant place, with gardens, libraries, a vibrant arts community, and quite a bit of intellectuals. However when you are there, you will be subject to progressively worse medical testing and organ donation, until one day you sign up for the final donation: giving all your organs away in a suicide. Dorrit is a solitary writer who has just entered the unit.

It's strikingly different from other dystopias because there are no villains. No one to hate. The dispensable people are treated as humanely as possible, and given every possible comfort, but they are slowly being used up and killed. This adds an unusual, quiet horror to the events that happen. There's nothing for the people in the Unit to push back on: no overt cruelty, little deprivation or even punishment, and the staff if anything are viewed as human beings. You hate the society that caused it, but even then, Ninni doesn't give us anything to latch on to hate: no causes why, and no villain to hope for change and downfall.

Unfortunately it makes the book very bleak and unrealistic at points. I think Ninni is trying to make a specific point about Scandinavian trust in and acceptance of government, and one that's needed especially because even as we speak, the Scandinavian countries tend to be in the forefront of the acceptance of euthanasia and controversies of it. But the passivity of everyone in the Unit is staggering. Dorrit especially, because what she witnesses her fellow Unit-members go through repeatedly would make any sane person try to rush the orderlies with a chair leg. But she continues to stay, first maudlin about the guy whose mistress she was, then her dog, until a very implausible thing happens. And even then, it takes more than that to get her to act.

I can see justification for it in the book. Dorrit is someone who has been alone most of her life, and longing for the stability and relationship of the past world. She wants to be just the passive housewife, because apparently its illegal in the outside world to display traits with traditional gender roles. She's also age 50, and not a young woman, with all the inertia an older person can have. It's hard to change, to disobey authority then. But still, it stretches credulity.

The world itself doesn't seem that plausible either. The Unit for all it's niceness is representative of a totalitarianism that would make 1984 seem child's play. There's no real explanation of why anyone would even allow this or not rise up against it: the Unit doesn't really serve any purpose except for medical testing and organ donation, and considering how desperate the people outside its walls feel, you wonder where the real power is being wielded to keep people in line.

Finally, the book is bleak. The people of the Unit suffer, and if anything, it's made crueler for all the comforts. It's worse in that they really do suffer for pointless reasons: their organs are being given to people who may one day become dispensables themselves, they watch each other die slowly until they accept it and embrace suicide via final donation, and there seems to be no signs of stopping it. The ending is a cheat, too: there's no real justification for Dorrit doing that, not with all the things she had seen happen to people she loved in there.

It's still powerful though, and good in that it doesn't give us easy outs. How the people in the unit react and form relationships that essentially dull their rebellious impulses is chilling. They choose pleasure, comfort, and obedience till the choice is taken away from them. There are also subtle little digs at how intellectuals aren't all that useful to resist evil. Yes, the world of the Unit is filled with writers and artists, but they are no better and maybe even worse at recognizing or fighting evil: they are too alone and too vulnerable. It works, but just barely. It desperately needs more context and more heart to be a better book. In a way, it reminds me of the same flaws in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Both are a bit too dispassionate and clinical for their own good, focusing on unrealistic relationships. Definitely worth the read, but leaves you a little empty inside after.

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