Thursday, June 18, 2009

Are you headed for The Unit?. . .

This is truly the most disturbing and terrifying novel I have read this year - and I mean that in a good way.

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy, is a dystopian novel, but like all great books in that genre, it succeeds brilliantly because the events that occur feel like they could happen next week. Our heroine Dorrit - not unlike myself - is a woman who early on in life was warned by her mother of the importance of being financially and intellectually independent. Career first - worry about men and babies later. Dorrit has taken this advice and become a writer, and though she's a struggling one she genuinely enjoys her life. However, society - still a free democracy - has radically changed its values. At the opening of the novel, Dorrit is preparing to go to The Unit, where all women who hit the age of 50, and men when they turn 60, have to go - but only if they don't have children.

On the surface, The Unit is a lovely place, an enclosed community where Dorrit gets her own apartment, has free access to restaurants, fitness centres, spas, museums and parks. Everyone is cheerful and she quickly makes friends with a group of other childless women. There is of course a library in The Unit, and a very up-to-date one; you can even sign out an e-reader. And the librarian works a lot of overtime because there are so many intellectuals in the Unit. "People who read books," he says, "tend to be dispensable. Extremely."

Scared yet?

Of course there is a political reason why Dorrit and childless men and women live in The Unit (and here I'm not revealing any spoilers you can't find on the jacket of the book). During their stay, they will be used as human guinea pigs for a roster of medical experiments and gradually become organ donors for those living outside The Unit - i.e. parents. They will be asked to donate what they can, bit by bit, until the final donation of a heart or lung. They get excellent medical care, but as you can guess, the life expectancy is not long in The Unit.

In addition to a cracking, well written story, this novel would make an incredible book club pick. It contains a minefield of ethical questions to discuss, not only around issues of organ donation (who deserves a kidney more - a perfectly healthy sixty year old man who may have another thirty years to live, or a thirty year old mother of two?) but also the role and economic value society places (or not) on childless citizens (who, I must mention are, ahem, often the ones covering maternity leaves). It's also very much a look at how the relationships and friendships between women change when children come into the picture. And about how married parents judge singletons, and the childless judge mothering skills. If we're honest, we've all been guilty of one or the other. The Unit may remind you of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and certainly if you enjoyed that novel, you will like this one too; I think it more closely continues the feminist and fertility debates that Margaret Atwood explored with The Handmaid's Tale, or even those that Aldous Huxley detailed in Brave New World. And this is definitely not just a female read - remember, childless men get sent to The Unit as well.

Shortly after finishing this unforgettable novel, I read a news report that the birth rate among Western women was declining at a rate that could have some major economic repercussions. Ninni Holmqvist is a Swedish writer, from a country famous for its progressive policies towards daycare and maternity leaves. And though my rational side tells me not to get freaked out by fiction, there's a part of me that wonders - what do the Swedes know that we don't yet? I've made a conscious decision in my life not to have kids (which I've never regretted - how do parents ever find the time to read?) though I'm happy to play a role in the lives of my friends who do. SO DON'T SEND ME TO THE UNIT!

(And of course, if you did, I couldn't offer up a few extra galleys of this amazing book, which I do now. Sorry, but this offer is only open to Canadian librarians, library staff and teacher-librarians at either public, school, or academic libraries. Just send me an e-mail at with The Unit in the subject line, and include your library mailing address. I'll accept entries for a week, until noon EST on Thursday, June 25th, and do a random draw then. Winners will be notified by e-mail.)
N.B. Thanks to everyone who entered the draw. This giveaway is now closed and winners have been notified.


Molly said...

Hi Maylin

excellent review - I am running out to get a copy


Saffron posted this to our office - really great!

Patricia said...

I read this book based on your blog review and because I am very interested in bioethics. What I found interesting was that the society portrayed in this novel is not that far from our own current state of affairs. A society built upon utilitarian values is not one I would wish to live in. I was hoping it would have a different ending for Dorritt but this would not have been consistent with the thinking that accompanies utilitarianism.
Very well done and well written but I could have done without the few detailed sex scenes.

Maylin said...

Thanks for your comments Patricia. Yes, I agree - it's nerve-wrackingly too familiar to ideas about fertility and women's roles that exist in the world today. Which is why I think Dorritt's decision was really the only one she could make. Glad you enjoyed the book.