‘The Unit’ by Ninni Holmqvist

TheUnit

Fiction – paperback; Oneworld Publications; 272 pages; 2010. Translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit is set in a dystopian future where a human being’s worth is measured by their ability and willingness to marry and have children. If you have failed to settle down and reproduce by the age of 50, for women, and 60, for men, you are immediately shipped off to a special facility — The Unit, of the title.

Here, under the ever-watchful eyes of CCTV cameras and well-attuned listening devices, you can live the rest of your days in relative comfort, with your every whim — bar freedom — catered for. But this comes at a price, for the Unit is essentially a donor bank for biological material. And that biological material is sourced from those “dispensable” 50- and 60-year-olds who are its captive residents.

This is a rather chilling premise for a book, no?

The story is told through the eyes of Dorrit Wegner, a writer who is checked into The Unit for failing to be a “productive” member of society. She had been lead to believe, as a young woman, that…

…getting by, coping, standing on your own two feet — financially, socially, mentally and emotionally — was important and that was sufficient. Children and a family were something that could come later, or even something you could choose to do without.

But when a new political party, the Capital Democrats, swept to power, those values got turned on their head. Laws were changed incrementally — equal amounts of parental leave for men and women, compulsory daycare for children — so that “there is no longer any excuse not to have children. Nor is there any excuse not to work when you have children”.

But Dorrit, who had several lovers over the years, never found the right man to settle down with, so children never entered the equation.

Once ensconced in her own little apartment at The Unit, Dorrit develops close friendships with other residents. For the most part her new life is a contented one. She escapes the more unpleasant medical experiments and surgical procedures that rob her friends of body parts. But then something totally unexpected happens — she falls in love with an older man — and things take a turn for the better, or do they?

I’m not going to say any more, for fear of spoiling the plot. But this is a remarkably thought-provoking novel. I suspect because the author is Swedish she is having a sly little dig at Scandinavian principles of social responsibility and Sweden’s tendency towards “popular movements”. But there’s plenty of commentary about the role of women in society, too, not least the notion that there must be something morally wrong (or mentally deficient) with women who choose not to have children.

The book brings to mind various other dystopian novels, in particular Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go (in terms of organ donation) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (mainly in the surveillance aspects). And while I haven’t read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, I’m sure there are similarities with that too.

But despite these weighty comparisons, The Unit suffers from turgid prose, the kind that is so dry and matter-of-fact that it began to wear very thin after just a few short chapters. Yes, the ideas presented here made me angry, outraged and sad by turn, but I found it difficult to like this tell-don’t-show style — highly reminiscent of Octavia E. Butler — with its over-emphasis on describing things — long walks down corridors, what people ate for dinner — in such a dull way.

There’s no denying that The Unit is an interesting book, but, in my view, the writing style let it down. For another take on the same novel, I urge you to read Maxine Clarke’s review at Petrona.

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15 thoughts on “‘The Unit’ by Ninni Holmqvist

  1. For me, the premise pretty much carried the book, and the premise was strong enough that I ended up liking it. I tend to agree that the writing itself wasn’t so great, but it wasn’t bothersome enough to annoy me. It struck me as being workmanlike prose, not bad or good. (Same impression I had of Butler, actually.)

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  2. The Capital Democrats sound suspiciously like the people we have in power now!!! Ha!
    Do read The Handmaid’s Tale, this does in some ways sound rather similar in basis of book – not actual plot or storyline. I must read Never Let Me Go and this sounds like I should try and get it in from the library!

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  3. I like the idea of this book when heard about it a while ago ,the flipping from young to old is a new take on a well worn road ,not huge fan of dystopia fiction thou ,all the best stu

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  4. Pedestrian prose is one of my pet hates, and probably explains my penchant for Irish fiction, which has a lovely musicality to it. The Unit was a good story and I appreciated the ideas behind it, but the workmanlike writing was disappointing.

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  5. Translated prose/language often drops/misses a lot of the original beauty (if such existed in the first place) in the translation process.
    Like this author, Ninni Holmqvist, I am from Sweden.
    I haven’t read any of her books.
    Another Swedish writer, Stieg Larsson, has gotten a lot of attention recently.
    I’ve read Stieg Larsson in Swedish, and his original [Swedish] words are not too impressive … guess how his limited use of his native Swedish tongue comes across in English, if translated by a less-than-brilliant translator?
    It goes from bad to worse, or at least from average to poor.
    I wouldn’t recommend English readers to read Swedish writer, but what’s your choice? Learn Swedish? 🙂
    Go for a Jane Austen, leave the Swedes…
    When reading American/Irish/British/Aussie/Canadian writers, I always go for the original [English] text.
    Whenever I have to read a translation (to Swedish) I’m always aware that something’s lost…
    BTW, I’m not too fond of “Handmaid’s Tale”, but it’s just me … guess it’s the SciFi-vs-realism thing.

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  6. hi Kim. I read this one a while ago and like you found the concepts and story interesting but the writing style a bit off-putting. I tended to put that down to the fact it was a translation.
    I quite enjoy fiction of this type, I don’t enjoy weird sci-fi but books set in an imaginable future fascinate me. Other similar books that I have enjoyed are ‘Never Let me Go’, ‘The Road’ and ‘Oryx and Crake’ which I thoroughly enjoyed.

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  7. Its an interesting issue re: translations. How much of the authors style etc is lost in translation? Unless you speak both languages its impossible to know. Im inclined to think this one was probably written in a fairly pedestrian style in its native Swedish, but how am I to know for sure?

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  8. I seem to have read a lot of dystopian fiction this past year; its a genre I quite liked when I was a teen (Orwell, Wyndham, Robert C OBrien) but hadnt followed up in my adulthood… until now.
    Glad it wasnt just me who found the writing style a bit off putting in this one!

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  9. This sounds like a fascinating premise, but as you say, quite a few others have tackled this idea before, and from what you’ve said, they’ve tackled it in a more exciting way.
    And naturally, I’ve got to cheer for The Handmaid’s Tale here.

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  10. I’ve been meaning to pick this up as an ebook, based on Maxine’s review.
    A lot of sf suffers from the sort of problem you describe, but I read it anyway the ideas, not the prose. (I’ve just finished a possibly similar novel, on cloning, which I’ll review in the next day or two.)

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  11. It doesn’t sound like a book for me, though I thought The Handmaid’s Tale was brilliant… but I think the cover design is terrific – very appropriate by the sound of things.

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