The Unit is a novel by author Ninni Holmqvist and is set in a Scandinavian country in a time not too unlike our own. It provides a chilling example of what could happen when countries have to address issues with population and the ‘necessary’ members of society.
The Narrator is a woman who, on her 50th birthday, finds herself alone in the world and is judged ‘expendable’ by her government based on the fact that she has no children or no lover to sign an agreement stating that she is needed, as well as no specific job that would make her invaluable. The ‘expendable’ men and women are taken to facilities where they participate in group studies for drugs, surgeries, and eventually provide organs and transplants for the ‘needed’ population. This is not a wholly bad experience; often the ‘expendable’ people that are taken to this facility live in more luxury and with more social interaction than has been available to them before. In fact, everything is paid for and there are really no rules except for being on time to experiments and basic human respect. You could think of it as a free retirement facility, only with a few unsavory consequences, like death.
The problem arises when the Narrator falls in love with a fellow expendable and knows that, eventually, they all go for their ‘final donation.’ The health of these expendable individuals decreases the longer they take part in the studies and tests, so having a relationship is like setting yourself up to be heartbroken. The Narrator must deal with her new love and cope with the fact that either one of them could be called in to die for a needed person at any time. Is the love and small chance to truly ‘live’ like a needed person worth it?
The Unit is a somber read. It treats the societal issues in the story much like Orwell or Huxley; there is a matter-of-fact tone that makes everything sound perfectly reasonable, even though the back of your mind is screaming that something is horribly wrong. No one really thinks to question what happens and why it happens – it just is the way it is. That thought itself is scary; society so often allows changes because of complacency. The characters are well-built and dialogue is written beautifully. There is enough mystery to make you keep turning the pages and enough insider knowledge to make the reader want to yell at the characters to warn them about what is going to happen next or cry at the injustice of it all.
The basic themes involve feeling ‘needed’ and characteristics of love involving desire and companionship. The story portrays love as equal, whether between the same-sex or between two different species. Loss is dealt with in many different ways and there is quite a bit of it in the book.
The book is a pleasant read, but keeps you thinking about what happened long after finishing a chapter. It is a haunting tale of a situation that could feasibly happen in the future if the right circumstances occur. Much like 1984, the characters do not always do what you expect them to and events do not turn out like you would hope. There is also a democratic government in place, making the story even more disturbing because the populace decided on the program as a whole. Finishing the book left me with a smile on my face and tears clinging to my eyelashes, yet also in a melancholy sadness at the brutal reality of life and love in the narrator’s world.
The Unit captures the reader from the very beginning and proposes an interesting question to society: if we are to control population, which certainly will become an issue in the future, will we do so by limiting children or by limiting the lives of those who have had a chance to live and did not live it in a productive way as defined by the government or general populace? Is either way of thinking humane and does a populace deciding as a whole validate the decision?