Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

I could hardly wait to get my hands on this book and in some respects I wasn’t disappointed and in other ways I was. Mix a good story with a bioethics plot and generally you’ve got me hooked.
Holmqvist’s dsytopia involves a society where single men (60 +) and women 50 (+) must report to The Unit, also known as the Biological Materials Unit. They live there, in relative luxury, making body-part donations and undergoing experimentation, until they make the final donation.

We follow 50 year old, Dorrit Weber as she enters the unit. A writer who followed her mother’s advice and put career first ahead of marriage and family, Dorrit finds society at 50, very different from the one her mother grew up in. Utilitarian ethics now dominate the way society functions and a person’s worth is determined by who needs them. And Dorrit has no one who needs her: she is as independent as her mother recommended thus the dreadful situation we now find her entering.

Along the way, we do get some sense of what life is like for people in the unit as we meet people who have made “donations” and people who have suffered through experiments. But, Holmqvist always seems subdued in her descriptions of how characters behave, what they have endured and what they are feeling and this was frustrating. The portrayal of the suffering, the personal tragedy and even the camaraderie never quite matches the intensity of the situation.

As an example, Dorrit had an abortion when she was in her late teens. Of course, the reader immediately realizes that if Dorritt had kept her baby she would not be in the Biological Reserve Bank Unit because she would be an “indispensable” person, having had a child who needs her. How Dorrit feels about this was only superficially explored.

I wanted to feel an empathy or even antipathy for the characters in their various situations but Holmqvist didn’t take me there. Perhaps, Holmqvist leaves much unsaid so the reader can consider for themselves the implications of a society like this. Nevertheless, the book was somewhat unsatisfying for me and therefore, unconvincing.

Holmqvist's book could have provided a fascinating examination into a world that we already share many characteristics with in terms of ethics. The trend towards utilitarian ethics in our society already matches the changes society in Dorrit's world during her stay in the Unit. In this regard, The Unit is creepy, relevant and left me queasy.

Recommended for adults. Mature sexual content.

Book Details:

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist
English translation published by Other Press, 2009
272 pp

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