The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist is a tantalizing peek at a dystopian future set in Sweden. The future described is not so different from our current society. Like the best dystopian worlds, it contains some elements that may cause the reader to be seduced by its promises. However, by the end of the novel and its focus upon one character, the reader understands that its promises come with severe consequences.
The Unit follows the life of one such character. Dorrit, like so many people at the Unit, is a childless woman of fifty years old and an artist. She obediently submits to the will of the state. She cleans house, sends away her dog to a nearby family, and waits for government officials to come pick her up. She’s just had her fiftieth birthday and according to law she is classified as Dispensable because she has not had any children. The government agents take her to an undisclosed location. It is a luxury housing facility for Dispensables called the Unit. It is one of many like it housing other dispensable people. Medical experiments and organ donations are done upon these people until their Final Donation.
Dorrit eases into life at the Unit by participating in a physical exertion test and a kidney donation. She makes friends and attends dances, theater, and concerts. Her social life is more active than ever. In fact, she feels freer within the Unit than she ever did in the community. Some of this freedom is because the worse has occurred : she is in the Unit being used as a commodity to benefit the community. The outside world is much different than that with which she had grown up; sexism is outlawed as is traditional gender roles. Feminism is a thing of the past because it has been conquered. Unfortunately, Dorrit’s mother had preached the dangers of marriage and family and she had taken these cautions to heart–she had never married. Now in the Unit, she is able to shed this fear (she is already confined in the Unit) and finds love with a fellow resident, Johannes. There is much more to this story, but I don’t want to ruin the plot for you. You’ll have to read the book to find out if she has a happy ever after with her lover.
Holmqvist is a good writer; she shows the details of her story rather than telling. Sometimes though, she’s almost too oblique. At one point towards the end of the novel, passing mention is made of social unrest in the outside community because the initial supply of dispensable people is not able to keep up with demand. It would be easy to miss this information because it is not stated by one of the main characters nor is it integral to the story, but it is important to the world building. The novel’s details allow the reader to immerse themselves in the areas of the Unit. The gardens, gyms, and apartments come alive due to the attention Holmqvist pays to all parts of the environment.
The Unit explores questions of gender roles, personal responsibility, and the dispensable people in society. Would outlawing gender roles eradicate sexism? Who owns your life? Are there dispensible people in today’s society, and how do we treat them? These are fascinating topics, and Holmqvist succeeds in her goal. The reader is challenged to think about gender, organ donations, social classes, friendship, and more. The Unit is a thought provoking novel that explores moral issues without stating an answer.