Publisher: Other Press, 2009
Genre: Fiction, Dystopia
Where I Got It: Bought it
Why I Read It: I kept seeing reviews for this dystopia and it sounded interesting. Plus, I wanted to experience an adult dystopia instead of a YA dystopia for once.
My Rating: 4 stars
In the not-to-distant future, Sweden has adopted some new societal norms. Those who are “needed” (i.e., work in necessary industries, produce children) live their lives normally. Those who are “dispensable” (i.e., work in marginal industries such as the arts, have not produced children) live on the outskirts of society until the age of 50 (for women) and 60 (for men). At that point, they enter the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material (or The Unit) for the remainder of their lives. In the Unit, they enjoy a comfortable apartment, freedom to pursue their art, modern facilities (including restaurants, theaters, gardens, and shopping), and friendship with other dispensables. Although they are not permitted to leave the Unit and are under constant video surveillance, all of their material needs are taken care of. They also find something else for the first time—friendship and acceptance.
In exchange for this comfortable lifestyle, the dispensables participate in a variety of medical experiments and, when necessary, donate “non-essential” organs to the Needed. Inevitably, they make a final donation, which is permanent and irrevocable (i.e., they donate all their organs). Despite the seeming horror of the Unit, our narrator Dorrit finds it a rather pleasant place to live. For the first time, Dorrit finds herself forming real relationships and living a fulfilling life—rather than just scraping by in her falling down house with only the company of her dog and illegal lover. However, her initial enchantment begins to fade when her friends being making final donations or suffering debilitating side effects from experiments. To complicate matters further, Dorrit falls in love for the first time with a fellow dispensable—leading her to contemplate whether this way of life is really as dignified and humane as it first seemed.
The Unit flips dystopia on its head by presenting a dystopic society in which everyone has bought into and accepted the new societal norms. (I’m not really spoiling the book with my description. It is all laid out in a rather matter-of-fact manner.) Dorrit and the others repeatedly remind themselves that they are living in a democracy and their donations are for the greater good. Despite some bitter resentment of fertile women, most dispensables find the Unit to be a safe haven—a place where they can fully and freely be themselves for the first time. Outside in the community, women like Dorrit were ostracized and barely able to get by. The freedom to create art and socialize with like-minded individuals is intoxicating. Ironically, inside the Unit, Dorrit begins to experience a full life for the first time.
Of course, the price of this life is rather steep. As Dorrit begins to see the effects of donations and experiments on her friends, she begins to waver in her attitude. In addition, Dorrit is not fully prepared for the reality of final donations. Yet the support and understanding of her fellow dispensables and the sympathetic staff help her deal with the sorrow and shock. It was fascinating how Holmqvist managed to make the Unit seem like an attractive option … if you just don’t think too hard about donations and such. It was easy to see why Dorrit almost enjoys her life in the Unit. It was also interesting how the staff of the Unit aren’t draconian guards or evil overlords forcing the dispensables to donate their organs. Everyone is supportive, caring and sympathetic. It was a strange and interesting dynamic—more in line with a dystopia like Never Let Me Go than The Hunger Games. (In fact, The Unit bears more than a passing resemblance to Never Let Me Go, including some of the terminology used. It made me wonder if Holmqvist was influenced by Ishiguro’s book.)
A book like The Unit raises interesting questions. How much is an individual life worth? Are some people more valuable than others because of what they contribute to society? Is the comfortable life given to dispensables a fair trade for the sacrifices they are asked to make? It was a pleasure (if I can use that word) to read a dystopia that seemed more grown-up and reasonable. Of course, that is exactly what makes this book so disturbing Although I found the book interesting, I didn’t fall in love with it … most likely due to the almost clinical nature of Holmqvist’s prose. I’m not sure if this was a translation issue, but I never fully got emotionally invested in Dorrit or the other characters due to the “aloofness” of Holmqvist’s writing. I was more interested in this society that Holmqvist was exploring than the characters living in it.Note: There are a few fairly explicit sex scenes that may make some readers uncomfortable.
Readers who enjoy dystopias that are more sophisticated in tone and less overtly brutal than dystopias found in YA books.
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