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Book Corner October 2009

The Unit

by Ninni Holmqvist. Trans from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy
New York:  Other Press, 2006/2008 trans.

Reviewed by Dr. Susan K. Hedahl


This novel begins benignly:  “It was more comfortable than I could have imagined.” (3)  Narrator of events is Dorrit Weger, a middle-aged, single woman with no children.  She has signed on to spend the rest of her life in the Second Reserve Unit for biological materials, a national experimental colony.

As she explores her new surroundings – luxurious in all respects concerning food, apartment and social activities – she describes herself under the same rubric as the directors and medical personnel of the unit.  She is a “dispensable.”

What could prompt someone to give up a house, a lover (although an occasional one at that) and a beloved dog?   Dorrit, we discover, has despaired of her life and that coincides with the unit’s invitation to leave all of its ambiguities and disappointments behind and join them.  She is part of a larger societal decision, however, which ultimately deals with those who have no family ties, no reproductive future: she must spend her remaining post-reproductive days as the subject of medical experiments.

But there is more.  All those who join the unit face the final “dispensation.”   Dorrit makes friends only to lose them.  “That was the last real conversation I had with the Alice I had gotten to know.  That was the last time she knew it was me….Within a week she had made her final donation.”  (238)

This work has a number of unexpected surprises, which heighten the issues for the reader about the meaning of life, love and relationships.  The narrator tone is dispassionate, shadowed by knowledge of her inevitable end, produced by the true horror of social engineering which this book reflects.

Holmqvist’s work is in the tradition of Margaret Atwood’s, The Handmaid’s Tale.  Its horrific assumptions and actions are played out between the narrator’s version of events and the power of a state which conceals the destruction of some of its citizens with supposedly philanthropic motives.

To say more is to unfold some of the deeper actions, choices and plot turns of this remarkable novel.  At the very least, however, one can say this work deserves a reading and an ethical stance which questions the nature of compassion and who makes decisions about its exercise. In our own society, the high-volume debates over health care and “death panels” provide a backdrop for this excellent book.