The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist.

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.

Last chance…


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.

* Get it?  Because it’s a Swedish book? I’m so clever.

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.

I sometimes have issues with Kazuo Ishiguro — when I like his work, I love it; when I’m not wooed by the text, I’m thoroughly bored.  The Remains of the Day stunningly displays the beauty of his writing, for example, but When We Were Orphans had me snoozing almost as soon as I cracked its spine.

Never Let Me Go certainly falls in the same category as the former, and warrants a special notice for Ishiguro’s ability to create a suspenseful, moody and entirely disturbing narrative.  The protagonist is Kathy H., who tells her tale in portions that alternate between her past as a boarding school pupil and her present as a caretaker.  As is common with Ishiguro, all is not what it seems.

During her student days at Hailsham, Kathy reveals herself to be more of a passive observer than an active participant; she also reveals to the reader that something is going on with her peers at Hailsham, and here Ishiguro keeps his cards extremely close.  He teases with the knowledge that he knows and his audience does not.

While more is disclosed as Kathy grows older, the full extent of the goings-on is never quite divulged.  What is known is this: the novel takes place in an alternate, dystopian England (Kathy’s present is the mid-nineties) where some have had themselves cloned to provide a source for organ donation.  This fact isn’t hidden from Kathy and her schoolmates, but the details aren’t exactly elaborated upon either.  Instead, the Hailsham students are encouraged to pursue their creativity as well as their sexuality; Kathy follows the “one night stand” path, as opposed to the more “steady relationship” sort of route.

There’s so much to Never Let Me Go that I feel necessitates further discussion, but Ishiguro’s story and his delivery of it is a tricky.  If anything, it’s almost as though Ishiguro has wrapped the novel in swathes of sheer fabric; as the reader uncovers each layer, the next handful of plot points become visable but impossible to fully discern.  What makes the book such a success is — like with Remains of the Day — its tone and the author’s delivery of it.  Never Let Me Go deals with some relatively ominous ideas, but Ishiguro allows them to enter his story as more of an indistinct mist as opposed to a dark and heavy cloud.  Gloominess permeates the pages, and the ending is not particularly uplifting, but it is one that makes the novel complete.  And you’ll have to read it to understand the double meaning of that word.  So please do.