Review: The Unit – Ninni Holmqvist

The UnitI have been a great fan of Kazuo Ishiguro’s books ever since The Remains of the Day right up to his latest  book of four stories, Nocturnes.  One of his more intriguing books was Never Let Me Go, about a boarding school in which cloned children were raised to become organ donors (turned into a rather good film by Director, Mark Romanek).

I was drawn to read The Unit because I was intrigued to see what Swedish writer Ninni Holmqvist would make of the organ donation theme.  After all, Sweden has an unpleasant history of eugenics having sterilised more mentally ill and deviant people than even Nazi Germany, in a programme that was brought to an end in 1975.

I have to say, I thought The Unit was rather good.  It is unlike Never Let Me Go in many ways, not least that in the Ishiguro book it is children who donate their organs while in The Unit it is the older generation who contribute their bits and pieces for the good of others.

The Unit takes place at an unspecified time in the future.  The world looks similar to ours but society has moved on.  The population is shrinking and priority is given to those who can bear children.  Childless, single or gay people are classified as “dispensable” and at the age of 50 for women or 60 for men (men produce viable sperm for longer than women produce viable eggs) they give up their homes and every aspect of their lives and go to live in The Unit where they spend the rest of their days – a place which has all the features of a luxury spa hotel, while going through a series of medical experiments and organ donations which will eventually kill them (via their “final donation”).

It is the matter of fact way in which this happens which shows how far this society has travelled.  There is no protest on the part of the donors – they accept that this is how things are, and while they lament the loss of their previous lives, they seem content with their lot, forming a mutually supportive society to help them get through their final two to four years (nobody last longer than this).

The book opens with Dorrit, a single 50 year old woman waiting outside her house to be picked up by a dark window’d four wheel drive to be taken away to the Second Reserve Bank.  She has had a hard time of it lately.  Her lover won’t leave his wife for her, commissions for her free-lance writing have dried up, and she can’t afford to maintain her house.  There is nothing left for her other than to respond to the letter that arrived a few weeks ago telling her to tidy up her life as best she can and prepare for her final journey to The Unit.  She has nobody to say goodbye to other than neighbours and she has arranged for her much loved dog “Jock” to go and live with a family who promise to look after him.  A poignant moment indeed!

I couldn’t reach the outside from now on, not by mail, e-mail, text messages or telephone calls. From now on the telephone existed for me only in the form of a fixed internal line, and as for the Internet, I was allowed to surf only under supervision, which meant an orderly or another member of staff sitting beside me, and I was not allowed to join chat forums, contribute to blogs, create or respond to advertisements, or vote in opinion polls.

She finds The Unit to be a sort of glorified Holiday Inn.  There are gymnasiums and swimming pools, pleasant atrium café areas, walks in quiet gardens set under an artificial roof which mirrors the changing seasons by clever lighting.  There is a better social life than most of the dispensables experienced in the outside world and every facility is provided for their amusement – from art galleries and libraries to theatres and massage clinics.

Dorrit soon makes close friends but of course, these people have a habit of disappearing for a couple of days while they donate a kidney or a cornea, returning just a little diminished in some way, but somehow taking it all in their stride for after all this is a well understood destiny to which they have been conditions for many years.

Dorrit takes part in medical experiments herself, finding these exhausting, but at least filling her days and giving her a sense of purpose.   She returns to her room to write her novel, under the watchful eye of surveillance cameras located in every part of her apartment, even the bathroom.

The book raises many questions, perhaps the most significant one being what happens when a dispensable become non-dispensable by meeting and falling in love with another dispensable and forming a viable unit of their own.  The result is not good although Dorrit seems to find some sort of satisfaction in the outcome.

I though this book was rather good.  OK, so it seems similar in some ways to Never Let Me Go, but I don’t actually believe that Ninni Holmqvist meant it this way.  The Unit has all the hallmarks of wholly original thinking and I’d rather see it as an independent take on the dystopian society genre of books which describe a world of “repressive social control systems and various forms of active and passive coercion” (Wikipedia).

Its a compelling read that kept me turning the pages (well, pressing the next button on my Kindle) and I’d overall I’d score it

7/10 – well written, good story, many good ideas, entertaining in a rather gruesome sort of way



16 thoughts on “Review: The Unit – Ninni Holmqvist

  1. I absolutely love this book. Definitely preferred it to Never Let Me Go. I just found the whole idea fascinating and grew rather fond of Dorrit. Glad to see you enjoyed it as well. Great post!


  2. I read this a year or so ago and remember thinking it was a kind of cross between Never Let Me Go and 1984. I liked the ideas it presented and its commentary on women — ie. you’re of no use to society unless you have children (so I’d be in The Unit for sure!) I wasn’t sure about the prose style though — I remember it being very turgid, although that might be the fault of the translation?

    Have you read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (I haven’t), as I suspect it, too, treads similar territory?


    • Kim – yes, I’ve read the Handmaids Tale (some time ago) and there are similarities in the style, but not the detail. I thought this one was quite good really and perhaps the author is someone to watch in the future.


  3. I agree that on the surface The Unit seems to be very similar to NLMG, but you’re right that the two feel very different and I think they speak to different issues (though they do share some common themes). One thing I found striking is that Ishiguro’s novel seems to rely on the veil of secrecy, whereas in The Unit, everything is out in the open, which may in and of itself make the frank approach to treating certain people as dispensible more horrific. While I have great respect for Ishiguro, I actually did not care for NLMG very much, so while I also think The Unit had some flaws in terms of pacing, of the two, I generally preferred it.


  4. Sounds like one I’d like Tom … I rather like dystopian novels (even when they’re gruesome)! I must say that Never let me go is my least favourite Ishiguro to date (and I’ve read all of his but one) but the topic is a great one to springboard discussions of “the human condition” not to mention ethics.


    • Sue – I’m not sure that this is a very “tasteful” book, being a bit gruesome at times so perhaps its not for you! I think a book group would have fun with this one, as you say, providing a springboard to various non-bookish discussions on ethics


  5. I have a copy and I must really get to it soon. I have seen many reviews by women readers and it is refreshing to have one from a male perspective, especially one that recommends it.


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