Before I start into this book, I have to warn you — if you haven’t yet read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and you want to, click away from this page. I’m not trying to pull a Lemony Snicket here; I just don’t want to ruin the novel because it may be impossible for me to discuss The Unit without giving away key points in Ishiguro’s work.
Here I go.
Dorritt Weger, a freelance writer and novelist, has no responsibilities aside from taking care of herself and her dog. She has little contact with her family, no spouse, and — most importantly — no children. Parents holding jobs that contribute to the economy are considered assets to society, while Dorritt, on her fiftieth birthday, has become “dispensable.”
In Ninni Homlqvist’s eerie Sweden, turning fifty is the end of the line for most women, which is why Dorritt has packed her life into a bag, given away her beloved dog and allowed herself to be taken to the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material. There, she will live in relative luxury in her fully-furnished apartment, select from a smörgåsbord* of catered meals, take as many items out of the library as she wants, use the state-of-the-art fitness facilities, shop at high-end boutiques, relax in a garden carefully cultivated to resemble Giverny and have unlimited access to the arts — all for free. In exchange, all she has to do is finally contribute to the community and to do her duty as a dispensable: participate in drug trials, be a guinea pig in psychological experiments and donate her organs to more-valued people.
What’s creepily interesting about The Unit is that the case of the missing fifty-year-old women isn’t a mystery, it’s law — and a well-established one at that. Men, lucky for them, aren’t collected and deposited into units until their sixtieth birthday, as they generally are still able to father children up to that age. Dorritt and her contemporaries have had most of their adult lives to find spouses, be employed in socially-significant positions and have babies, so of course the question is, Why haven’t they?
Dorritt, to her credit, has tried — kind of. Her long-time lover refuses to leave his spouse, but that’s the most of her efforts to sidestep legalities. She says herself, “I still regarded the future with optimism. I still believed and hoped that it wasn’t too late to have a child. Or to at least start earning money from my profession and become financially secure, or find a partner, someone who would love me and want to live with me. Almost to the very end I had hopes…”
And so she arrives at the Unit, where Dorritt finally finds herself in the company of people just like her — artists, authors, musicians… all dispensable, and all of whom are incredibly candid about their future. When Dorritt makes her first “donation,” a kidney, she and the other dispensables literally compare scars. There’s no childish glee in this, no matter how childish the act — I want to be absolutely clear. Part of what makes The Unit so irresistable is what Ms. Holmqvist does with Dorritt’s first person narration. She makes her protagonist completely honest: Dorritt discusses her regrets, her unabashed love for her dog, her reactions to watching her friends go into the operating room, all with unwavering frankness.
This candidness also applies when Dorritt, for the first time in her life, falls in love with a fellow dispensable. Of course, it’s obvious that this relationship is not going to last; there’s no special treatment awarded to senior citizens who have suddenly found their perfect partners, which is what makes it all so much more bittersweet.
Like Mr. Ishiguro, Ms. Holmqvist tackles dark and heavy topics (often the same ones) and still creates an atmosphere that is not desolate. There are moments of what even might be called happiness, though, obviously, they don’t last. What does, however, is a sense of awaiting the inevitable — which brings me to the other reason why I found The Unit irresistable: the reader knows exactly what is going to happen, and yet he or she is still kept waiting, fists clenched and breath held. Mr. Ishiguro accomplishes something similar, but does so while leaving the reader questioning what really is taking place beyond the narrator’s scope in Never Let Me Go. Ms. Holmqvist, on the other hand, shows her hand from practically page one and achieves the same effect. If that’s not compelling, I don’t know what is.
There’s so much more that I could discuss with you about The Unit, but as just as I said when I wrote about Never Let Me Go, it’s impossible to address without giving away the surprises that Ms. Holmqvist has waiting. So pick up a copy of the book and get back to me when you’ve finished reading it. I’ve got so much to say.