Sunday, July 5, 2009

Book Review: The Unit

The Unit, a debut novel by Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist, gives new meaning to the concept of retirement. Narrator Dorrit Weger somewhat unwillingly joins a community of "dispensables" at the age of 50, when she is no longer considered to be a productive and valuable member of the bigger society. Children are highly valued, and the only way to live out a long life and natural death is to have children and/or be in a respected, progressive profession. Dorrit, having been a writer with no husband or children, set herself up for being collected just after her 50th birthday and placed into a small apartment monitored by microphones and cameras in every crevice at the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material.

There she meets people just like her, most of whom have oddly come to accept their fate, which not only involves allowing others to control the remainder of their days, but allows others to choose just how many days they have left. These childless individuals are forced to become valuable by helping the medical segment through participating in drug trials, psychological tests, and by donating blood and organs to those who do have children. This society seems to forget that everyone was a child at one point in time, and it allows a person's age, fertility status, family, and profession define his or her role as either donor or recipient.

It's not all bad for Dorrit, though. She makes close friends and even finds herself involved in a romantic relationship with a man. She has a bold, confident personality that allows her to do as she pleases regardless of being watched everywhere she goes, including the bedroom and the bathroom. Her main regret is being split up from her dog Jock, who she had become deeply attached to in her previous life. Despite Dorrit being farmed out to a slaughterhouse, her dog was allowed to live on with a new family in order to keep the children happy.

If you have ever seen a movie trailer, and then the movie itself, and thought to yourself that the trailer ruined the movie by giving it all away, you may feel that way with this book. The summaries and introductions I read said what the first 2/3rds of the book said, but in a much more succinct way. I found it to be a bit predictable and skimmed past the parts that spent too much time on unnecessary details or repetitious material.

The action did pick up well in the last third of the book, and Holmqvist did do a good job of not letting the ending out of the bag. There were a few subjects that she touched on, and failed to bring back into the story while there were others that she seemed to dwell upon. This type of story needs some level of mystery so that everything isn't spelled out for the reader, and it was good not knowing everything that Dorrit thought and felt. When faced with figuring out the lesser of many evils, I wasn't sure which way Dorrit would go.

I personally found the novel to be unsettling, which was no doubt the aim of the author. I admit that I have teetered back and forth about that "organ donor" stamp on my driver's license. If I'm dead anyway, I may as well help others live. Then I hear horror stories of organ donor bodies being dumped in corpse farms to be eaten by worms and organ donor parts being used in practical jokes by med students. People still want their dignity and a funeral after their deaths.

If you like to reflect on sociological phenomena, this is one book that will get you thinking. I could imagine how in a society like this, women would be pumping out those babies as fast as they can to save their own lives, and any man who loved a woman would make sure she always had little ones who needed her. People who probably shouldn't be parents will be parents at the expense of the children. Certain professions would be overpopulated, not to mention the society in general, which would lead to additional problems. Pick up a copy of this book, and see what you think.


KD said...

Thanks for another great review....but this one may be a little too unsettling for my limited reading time.

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Interesting and eerie. Thanks for the review. I wish I could find to read soon. This summer is just too busy for me to spend much time indoors with a book. Bloggin is even taking a back seat now, too.

Come winter I hope to be reading...spinning, knitting and doing more blogging. hehe!