Author: Ninni Holmquist
Translator: Marliane Delargy
Release date: UK 2010, Sweden 2006
Target audience: Adult (**sexual content)
Summary from Amazon:
When Dorrit Wegner turned fifty, the government transferred her to a state-of-the-art facility where she can live out her days in comfort. Her apartment is furnished to her tastes, her meals expertly served, and all at the very reasonable non-negotiable price of one cardiopulmonary system. Once an outsider without family, derided by a society bent on productivity, Dorrit finds within The Unit the company of kindred spirits and a dignity conferred by 'use' in medical tests. But when Dorrit also finds love, her peaceful submission is blown apart and she must fight to escape before her 'final donation'.
The Unit is at once a painful book to read and yet remarkably absorbing. It is so believable that it horrified me. Once I finished reading it, I felt like a swimming pool inflatable with all the air let out, left to bob hopelessly under a darkened sky. The story (which is a first person narrative) tells us about Dorrit who has just turned fifty and is taken to the unit. Any woman who gets to the age of fifty and any man who gets to the age of sixty without having any dependents are classed as dispensible. This means that if they do not have any children or a partner to say that they are needed and loved then they are required to give themselves over to the unit. There are units all over Sweden.
When Dorrit arrives at the unit, she is angry and frightened but surprised by how much luxury they are given. The unit is a vast and considerable dome in which the residents have their own bedrooms and kitchenettes. There is a cinema, a library, a theatre, a garden that is constantly in bloom, a state of the art sports facility and multiple restaurants. Each resident is given the opportunity to spend their free time pursuing their own personal interest. Dorrit’s friend Majken is an artist and is planning an exhibition of her work in the unit’s gallery. The unit is highly civilised but in every possible place there are cameras and microphones. Everything that the residents do and say is observed and monitored.
Every month new dispensibles arrive and are given a welcome party. For the first four days in the unit, the residents are given free time to adjust and find their equilibrium. Then they go through a day of rigorous assessment. They go through every possible test, blood, tissue, DNA, and that is followed by a gruelling fitness test. The data is used by the scientists and researchers in the unit to assign experiments for the dispensables to take part in. Some of the experiments are risk free about measuring levels of fatigue after exercising for example, some of the experiments are psychological and some are quite frankly terrifying – like being used to test the effects gases used in chemical weapons.
The dispensible go through various stages in their time in the unit. Each person ends their days with their final donation. That is to say their vital organs are taken and given to a candidate in the outside world who needs them. The people in the outside world are the “needed”. They serve society in one way or another.
I could go on explaining how things work but this review would be dissertation length. The other defining thing about this society is that the oppression of women is illegal. I know that sounds like a wonderful thing but remember this book is dystopian and even something that should be empowering can be distorted and corrupt.
One of the things that really struck me about this book is that you could see that this concept had so much potential to actually happen. As people in our society age, we become burdened by the need to look after them. This book offers one way to eradicate that problem. It frightened me in its believability. If one chooses to live without a family, without a partner, one is effectively condemned to incarceration (leading to abuse and death) at a set date. What vile horror!
The other thing that struck me is that Dorrit comes to think of the way the unit treats them as humane. I was reading it thinking, yes, they do treat you well, but you need to ask why! The dispensible become institutionalised.
Overall, The Unit is powerful, beautifully written and conceptually amazing. Not an uplifting read but certainly a thought-provoking one.