Publication Date: June 9, 2009
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One day in early spring, Dorrit Weger is checked into the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. She is promised a nicely furnished apartment inside the Unit, where she will make new friends, enjoy the state of the art recreation facilities, and live the few remaining days of her life in comfort with people who are just like her. Here, women over the age of fifty and men over sixty–single, childless, and without jobs in progressive industries–are sequestered for their final few years; they are considered outsiders. In the Unit they are expected to contribute themselves for drug and psychological testing, and ultimately donate their organs, little by little, until the final donation. Despite the ruthless nature of this practice, the ethos of this near-future society and the Unit is to take care of others, and Dorrit finds herself living under very pleasant conditions: well-housed, well-fed, and well-attended. She is resigned to her fate and discovers her days there to be rather consoling and peaceful. But when she meets a man inside the Unit and falls in love, the extraordinary becomes a reality and life suddenly turns unbearable. Dorrit is faced with compliance or escape, and…well, then what?
THE UNIT is a gripping exploration of a society in the throes of an experiment, in which the “dispensable” ones are convinced under gentle coercion of the importance of sacrificing for the “necessary” ones. Ninni Holmqvist has created a debut novel of humor, sorrow, and rage about love, the close bonds of friendship, and about a cynical, utilitarian way of thinking disguised as care.
Ninni Holmqvist was born in 1958 and lives in Skåne, Sweden. She made her debut in 1995 with the short story collection Suit [Kostym] and has published two further collections of short stories since then. She also works as a translator. The Unit marks Holmqvist’s debut as a novelist.
Marlaine Delargy works as a translator and adult learning support tutor. She has translated novels by Åsa Larsson and Johan Theorin, among others, and serves on the editorial board of the Swedish Book Review. She lives in Shropshire, England.
- Dorrit can be described as very obedient. She submits to her fate by going to The Unit without protest and does not seem naturally inclined to buck authority. What personality traits or life circumstances do you think causes a person to be obedient? Conversely, what leads one to question the rules of the establishment? Are you the type to question or accept the status quo? What do you think makes you that way?
Named one of the Best Novels of 2009 by the Wall Street Journal
Marcela Valdes, The Washington Post
“A haunting, deadpan tale set vaguely in the Scandinavian future…Holmqvist’s spare prose interweaves the Unit’s pleasures and cruelties with exquisite matter-of-factness…[Holmqvist] turns the screw, presenting a set of events so miraculous and abominable that they literally made me gasp.”
Jessa Crispin, NPR.org
“Echoing work by Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood, The Unit is as thought-provoking as it is compulsively readable.”
The New Yorker
“This haunting first novel imagines a nation in which men and women who haven’t had children by a certain age are taken to a “reserve bank unit for biological material” and subjected to various physical and psychological experiments, while waiting to have their organs harvested for “needed” citizens in the outside world… Holmqvist evocatively details the experiences of a woman who falls in love with another resident, and at least momentarily attempts to escape her fate.”
“Eerie, chilling, yet almost plausible…Holmqvist gives us a lesson in human nature and social engineering through a story that is spare, compelling, and all too human.”
“Holmqvist handles her dystopia with muted, subtle care...Neither satirical nor polemical, The Unit manages to express a fair degree of moral outrage without ever moralizing…it has enough spooks to make it a feminist, philosophical page-turner.”
Tim Gebhart, Blogcritics.org
“The Unit raises issues of love, gender, freedom, and social mores through the perspective of how we assess an individual's contribution to society…Holmqvist's ability to invest the reader in both the story and the characters is exceptional. It is a book you hesitate to put down. In fact, I consumed it in the space of a couple separate sittings in less than a day…the book is reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale. Yet to classify or judge it as a feminist work alone is unfair. It certainly surpasses Kazuo Ishiguro's widely praised Never Let Me Go…Hopefully, the fact this is a translated work and tends to be billed as feminist literature will not adversely affect the book's ability to make it to bookstore shelves. The Unit deserves a wide readership.”
Kelly Fitzpatrick, The Orlando Sentinel
“This is one of the best books I’ve read over the past two years...Thought-provoking and emotionally-moving, The Unit is a book you’ll be discussing with others long after you’re done reading it.”
"Chilling…stunning…Holmqvist’s fluid, mesmerizing novel offers unnerving commentary on the way society devalues artistic creation while elevating procreation, and speculation on what it would be like if that was taken to an extreme. For Orwell and Huxley fans."
"Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this novel imagines a chilling dystopia: single, childless, midlife women are considered dispensable. At 50 the narrator, Dorrit, is taken to a facility where non-vital organs will be harvested one by one for people more valued by society; she knows that eventually she’ll have to sacrifice something essential’ like her heart. Dorrit accepts her fate–until she falls in love and finds herself breaking the rules."
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
“…Holmqvist’s marvelous book doesn’t browbeat her thesis into the reader and smartly expands her ideas to look at the plight of all marginalized folk, women and men alike, and how the promise of comforts can be the most horrifying of all. Prepare to be disturbed, but prepare further to think about the ramifications.”
"Pricey shops that require no money. Gardens that trump Monet’ s. Creature comforts galore. But Swedish ace Holmqvist’s English-language debut soon discloses a catch. The shelf-life for inhabitants of this paradise is about six years. This is the Second Reserve Bank Unit, into which the State herds women 50 and up, and men 60 and over, to use for biological material. They’re fattened like calves, but there’s civic-duty payback: mandatory organ donation, culminating in the final “gift” of their lungs and hearts. Big Brother doesn’t take every oldster, just those termed “dispensables”: the cash-strapped, underachieving or, worst of all, childless. Dorrit Weger, freelance writer, dog-lover and free sprit, is initially mesmerized by her new surroundings. She feels a sense of community, a closeness never offered by Nils, the inadequate lover who would never leave his wife. And she takes pride in being needed when she’s enlisted in one of the Unit’s many medical experiments. It’s a benign investigation into the effects of exercise, but in the cafeteria and on the lush grounds Dorrit soon notices other campers sleepwalking like zombies or displaying weirdly blotched skin. As her roommates are ushered off one by one to their final donations, she panics into the arms of Johannes, a fellow Unit resident who actually manages to impregnate her. Dazzled by upcoming motherhood, Dorrit is certain her bulging belly will gain her freedom. Proven at last productive, she’s bound to be rewarded by the State….isn’t she? In her first novel, short-story writer Holmqvist echoes political-science treatises like Hobbes’ Leviathan and Rousseau’ s The Social Contract (gone decidedly mad here), as well as the usual dystopian novels from Brave New World to 1984. Orwellian horrors in a Xanadu on Xanax—creepily profound and most provocative."