The kind of dystopian novel I’m often lukewarm about, The Unit has a blurb on the front cover from Margaret Atwood, which really tells me all I need to know. It’s science-fictional but also hangs on to that notional “literary fiction” tag, as if it doesn’t want to stoop too much into the genre ghetto. Whereas Kazuo Ishiguro’s dive into organ donation is a meditation on personhood, Ninni Holmqvist is more interested in the value of certain types of people—namely childless, older people. Not at all shocking but certainly thought-provoking, The Unit is a calm dystopia for people who can’t stomach Black Mirror.
Dorrit has turned fifty. As a childless woman of that age in Sweden in this world, she has to leave the outside world behind and relocate to a Unit. There, she lives in relative peace and socialist comfort—when they aren’t harvesting her organs or running medical experiments on her, that is. But no, seriously, The Unit isn’t dystopian body horror. It’s all very civilized in the most bureaucratic and banal ways, as so much evil is. Dorrit resigns herself to her fate, except then, of course, she falls in love.
I had really weird feelings reading this. I’m verging on 29 (in fact will have turned 29 by the time I publish this review), am childless, and also partnerless. The Unit is an extremely amatonormative, allocisheteronormative world, and so as an aromantic person, this was a tough read at times. It feels like men and women in this society are heavily motivated to shack up, or at least have sex—indeed, at times Dorrit relates stories of women “tricking” men into impregnating them and then abandoning the man to his fate. There doesn’t seem like much room for queer relationships of any sort in this society. Holmqvist only tangentially touches on this (Dorrit’s elder sister, who is a side character and extremely minor side plot, is apparently gay). But that’s about it. Otherwise it’s all, “Oops, you didn’t make babies, you get sent to the Unit.” Dorrit’s own relationship once in the unit is frustratingly explicitly heteronormative, despite some wonderful homoerotic tension between her in and another character (at least, in my opinion).
Holmqvist provides an author’s note with some explanations, which is nice. As a childless woman herself, she explains how she conceived the story after considering how she might be “dispensable” in her society. While I’m not sure I agree with her interpretation, I do understand where she’s coming from. And I don’t mean to imply she’s condoning The Unit’s social set-up—in the best tradition of dystopian fiction, she is of course attempting to critique our own society’s hang-ups through an exaggerated version of it. I commend her for the attempt … I’m just not sure it’s all that radical enough or goes far enough, and there are dimensions missing from the social commentary (like the missed opportunity to explore queerness more deeply). I’m not saying she needed to make Dorrit a firebrand revolutionary there to overturn the system—I get that she’s portraying a more subtle story. Nevertheless, The Unit is a very … tame … dystopian work.
Other observations to consider: this is a very meditative and character-driven piece. There isn’t much action. Dorrit narrates the minutiae of her life, explaining to us how she feels, providing exposition as she goes. I generally enjoy books like these, but I also can’t read a lot of them back to back, because they do take more work than more dialogue-driven or plot-driven novels. If you like this kind of thing, I think you’ll enjoy dipping into The Unit, maybe sipping from it over several days. If you want something faster-paced, or something louder, then you’ll likely be disappointed.
In short, The Unit is quite a focused story. I don’t think it’s for everyone. I’m ambivalent about it: I like a lot of what Holmqvist tries to do, but I also wish it was something more than it is. So while I’m happy I gave it a chance, I also can’t sing its praises extremely loudly. It’s no Handmaid’s Tale … yet it’s a sight better than some of Atwood’s more recent forays into dystopia, that’s for sure.