Author, Book review, Books in translation, dystopian, Fiction, Ninni Holmqvist, Oneworld, Publisher, Setting, Sweden

‘The Unit’ by Ninni Holmqvist


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.