The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
My rating* – 2
This book was one of our reading picks for the month by my book club. I joined this group because book clubs always expand your reading “palate”. They open your world up to reading material you otherwise might not have chosen on your own. At least this is the case for me since I’ll quicker read a memoir than a novel.
A good book for me is one that causes me to think and when I’m absorbed by a book, I climb into the story and stay there for the duration. I suppose my first foray into dystopian science fiction literature would have been in high school Lit class when we read The Chrysalids by John Wyndham. I actually loved this book and to this day when I think about it I still am tempted to do a piggy count. Dystopian Literature however, has come a long way since ’96.
“One day in early spring, Dorrit Weger is checked into the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. She is promised a nicely furnished apartment inside the Unit, where she will make new friends, enjoy the state of the art recreation facilities, and live the few remaining days of her life in comfort with people who are just like her. Here, women over the age of fifty and men over sixty-single, childless, and without jobs in progressive industries-are sequestered for their final few years; they are considered outsiders. In the Unit they are expected to contribute themselves for drug and psychological testing, and ultimately donate their organs, little by little, until the final donation. Despite the ruthless nature of this practice, the ethos of this near-future society and the Unit is to take care of others, and Dorrit finds herself living under very pleasant conditions: well-housed, well-fed, and well-attended. She is resigned to her fate and discovers her days there to be rather consoling and peaceful. But when she meets a man inside the Unit and falls in love, the extraordinary becomes a reality and life suddenly turns unbearable. Dorrit is faced with compliance or escape, and…well, then what?” (Back of the book blurb)
To be honest, I never read the blurb, a fellow book-club member gave me a synopsis of the book and I started reading. Based on that, the first few pages held a lot of promise for a great story. But as I delved deeper, it really dragged in the middle and I seriously wanted to shake Dorrit.
I could not understand why someone who was such a free spirit and valued her individuality, when presented with the opportunity to leave and regain that freedom, would not choose to take it? She was way too obedient for me, she seemed more concerned with the creature comforts available in the Unit and sex than the horror of what was happening around her. And I don’t think a feminist 50 yr old who would have experienced life before the change of rules in society would just accept life in the Unit.
Dorrit’s favourite place in the Unit was the replica of Monet’s Garden in Giverny. I thought this was quite ironic since Monet did not like organized or constrained gardens. He left his flowers to grow freely with only colour to rule them, which was quite the opposite of everything the Unit was about.
While I get that Dorrit was a creative and an artist in her own right, the constant descriptions of everything was annoying after a while. Whole pages of descriptions left me very bored and to make it easier I would do a quick scan to get to the end of it. I felt that the sex scenes were unnecessary as well. But my biggest problem with this book is the ending. After crawling into this story and almost rooting for Dorrit, it was emotionally unsatisfying.
Because of this, I have been thinking about how to write this review. On the one hand, it caused me to think as I wondered how this society would fit into my island culture. It would certainly solve our vagrancy problem. But on the other, I hated the ending. Maybe Ninni should have ended the story at page 262 and I strongly suggest if you do choose to read this book that you stop reading at that point. Part 4 of the book is short and stupid.
But it is Part 4 that has inspired the most thought. It struck me in the shower, that this is a story about power and vulnerability and it is a story about love. Dorrit’s decision to return was both for her legacy as much as it was for herself. She was giving someone an opportunity she didn’t have as well as giving her legacy a chance to live on, while keeping the promise she made to a fellow dispensable and friend. Her actions were ultimately for the greater good of all involved. But was Dorrit at heart simply weak or brainwashed by society? Maybe she was daunted by the fact that she had no money, no friends, nowhere to live and most possibly no lover?
Or maybe that is the whole idea behind the plot. Here was a society inherently made up of sheeple who allowed their lives and “freedoms” to be dictated by the ruling class. Man has always wanted dominance over all things including his fellow-man. Those with power have always found ways to justify the oppression of those weaker than they are as long it can satisfy some greater good. The residents of the Unit, while living independent lives in the Community ultimately accepted their fate once they got there often times talking about the various experiments they were involved in like it was an achievement. They too were caught up in furthering the greater good. And most certainly Dorrit who even when she had something other than herself to fight for, she chose the sheeple way out. Love was not enough to make her fight. Or maybe her final decisions were her biggest acts of love.
As much as I hate the ending of this book, it caused me to think and that at least made reading it worthwhile.
*my personal quality ratings are the scores I give books on a scale of 0-5 based on my personal opinion of a book. 0 is “birdcage liner” and 5 is “off-the-hook good”