Ninni Holmqvist translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy

The Unit


Publication Date: Jun 09, 2009

272 pp

Trade Paperback

List Price US $14.95
ISBN: 9781590513132

Ebook

List Price US $4.99
ISBN: 9781590513330


Named one of the Best Novels of 2009 by the Wall Street Journal

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?

The Unit is a gripping exploration of a society in the throes of an experiment, in which the “dispensable” ones are convinced under gentle coercion of the importance of sacrificing for the “necessary” ones. Ninni Holmqvist has created a debut novel of humor, sorrow, and rage about love, the close bonds of friendship, and about a cynical, utilitarian way of thinking disguised as care.



Excerpt from The Unit

It was more comfortable than I could have imagined. A room of my own with a bathroom, or rather a suite of my own, because there were two rooms: a bedroom and a living room with a kitchenette. It was light and spacious, furnished in a modern style and tastefully decorated in muted colors. True, the tiniest nook or cranny was monitored by cameras, and I would soon realize there were hidden microphones there too. But the cameras weren’t hidden. There was one in each corner of the ceiling–small but perfectly visible–and in every corner and every hallway that wasn’t visible from the ceiling; inside the closets, for example, and behind doors and protruding cabinets. Even under the bed and under the sink in the kitchenette. Anywhere a person might crawl in or curl up, there was a camera. Sometimes as you moved through a room they followed you with their one-eyed stare. A faint humming noise gave away the fact that at that particular moment someone on the surveillance team was paying close attention to what you were doing. Even the bathroom was monitored. There were no less than three cameras within that small space, two on the ceiling and one underneath the wash basin. This meticulous surveillance applied not only to the private suites, but also to the communal areas. And of course nothing else was to be expected. It was not the intention that anyone should be able to take their own life or harm themselves in some other way. Not once you were here. You should have sorted that out beforehand, if you were thinking along those lines.


“A haunting, deadpan tale set vaguely in the Scandinavian future…Holmqvist’s spare prose interweaves the Unit’s pleasures and cruelties with exquisite matter-of-factness…[Holmqvist] turns the screw, presenting a set of events so miraculous and abominable that they literally made me gasp.” —Marcela Valdes, Washington Post

“Echoing work by Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood, The Unit is as thought-provoking as it is compulsively readable.” —Jessa Crispin, NPR.org

“This haunting first novel imagines a nation in which men and women who haven’t had children by a certain age are taken to a ‘reserve bank unit for biological material’ and subjected to various physical and psychological experiments, while waiting to have their organs harvested for ‘needed’ citizens in the outside world… Holmqvist evocatively details the experiences of a woman who falls in love with another resident, and at least momentarily attempts to escape her fate.” —New Yorker

“Holmqvist handles her dystopia with muted, subtle care…Neither satirical nor polemical, The Unit manages to express a fair degree of moral outrage without ever moralizing…it has enough spooks to make it a feminist, philosophical page-turner.” —TimeOut Chicago

“This is one of the best books I’ve read over the past two years…Thought-provoking and emotionally-moving, The Unit is a book you’ll be discussing with others long after you’re done reading it.” —Kelly Fitzpatrick, The Orlando Sentinel

“Chilling…stunning…Holmqvist’s fluid, mesmerizing novel offers unnerving commentary on the way society devalues artistic creation while elevating procreation, and speculation on what it would be like if that was taken to an extreme. For Orwell and Huxley fans.” —Booklist

“Like Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, this novel imagines a chilling dystopia: single, childless, midlife women are considered dispensable. At 50 the narrator, Dorrit, is taken to a facility where non-vital organs will be harvested one by one for people more valued by society; she knows that eventually she’ll have to sacrifice something essential’ like her heart. Dorrit accepts her fate–until she falls in love and finds herself breaking the rules.” —More Magazine

“…Holmqvist’s marvelous book doesn’t browbeat her thesis into the reader and smartly expands her ideas to look at the plight of all marginalized folk, women and men alike, and how the promise of comforts can be the most horrifying of all. Prepare to be disturbed, but prepare further to think about the ramifications.”
—Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind

“Orwellian horrors in a Xanadu on Xanax—creepily profound and most provocative.” —Kirkus Reviews


1. Dorrit can be described as very obedient. She submits to her fate by going to the Unit without protest and does not seem naturally inclined to buck authority. What personality traits or life circumstances do you think causes a person to be obedient? Conversely, what leads one to question the rules of the establishment? Are you the type to question or accept the status quo? What do you think makes you that way?

2. In the Unit, the residents are surrounded by luxuries they did not know in their former lives outside. The food is abundant, fresh, and masterfully prepared and presented. Their apartments are comfortable and well-appointed. They have access state-of-the-art exercise facilities, and can shop in lovely boutiques in exchange for no money whatsoever. How do you see the availability these creature comforts to the indispensables? As perks? Mere distractions? How is this different from the meaning you might attach to these things in your own life?

3. Although she was content, owned a home with a garden, had a dog she loved, and a love affair with Nils, Dorrit was deemed by the state to be dispensable. To whom or to what was Dorrit’s presence necessary? What determines one’s worth? In order for our lives to have meaning, do you feel that we must make a contribution to greater society?

4. Dorrit comes from a big family–she was one of five children. And yet she describes them as being “scattered to the winds like a dandelion clock.” What caused her family to become so disconnected? In thinking about your own life, what things do you do to maintain a family bond? What significance does family hold for you?

5. Dorrit finds more love and companionship, in the Unit than she ever did in her former life. Why do you suppose intimacy comes easier to her in the Unit? Do you think she ever would have developed deep friendships outside? Why or why not?

6. There are many gifted artists in residence at The Unit. Dorrit’s writing comes much easier to her there than it did at home. What is it about the Unit that enables such creativity to come to the fore?

7. Dorrit was raised in the time before the laws about organ donations and indispensables were enacted, in the post-women’s lib era when independence was encouraged and valued. Dorrit’s mother, having raised five children and seeing the possibilities that lay before her three daughters, discourages them from getting “caught in a trap” by a having children and getting married. Yet these women live to see values shift once again to the point where a woman’s life is only of value if she is a mother. How is Dorrit a product of her time but also trapped by it? Discuss the paradox of being a feminist in a society where your life only has meaning if you provide for others.

8. Why do you think that, despite their closeness and Dorrit’s pregnancy, Johannes makes his final donation without consulting Dorrit and without saying goodbye in a deliberate way? In what ways is this decision selfish? Selfless? Do you think Johannes did the right thing? Why or why not?

9. Why does Dorrit abandon her escape attempt and return to the Unit? What would you have done?

10. Several times over the course of the novel, the society is referred to as a democracy. In what sense is it a fully democratic society? Are the people in the wider community truly free? What freedoms are afforded to the dispensables?