I really wanted to love this book, but it just wasn’t happening. This has been on my to-read list for ages, and from the description sounded right up my alley. There may be a couple mild spoilers in here, but nothing you couldn't guess from just reading the blurb on the back cover. This book is fairly predictable.
In the future world Ninni Holmqvist has created, those considered “dispensable” –- women over 50 and men over 60 who have not partnered and had children, or hold productive jobs (doctors, teachers, and media personalities, apparently) –- are locked away in the Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material. There they live out their remaining few years in the height of comfort and luxury, while participating in medical experiments and donating their organs one by one. This isn’t the secret-evil-underbelly present in most dystopias: all citizens have full knowledge of what goes on at the Unit and when their time comes, they go voluntarily. Even those inside the Unit never seem to consider resistance or escape. I thought the concept was really interesting, and the fact that it touches on issues of sexism, ageism, and what it means to be a productive member of society appealed to me.
There are some serious holes in the execution, though. We are given very little information about what the state of the outside world is like, and instead given totally superfluous details about mundane things that have only a passing relevance to the story –- nearly a full page is devoted to the type of mocktails served at what is essentially a retirement home party. I wish I were kidding. Plenty of parts just don’t make sense. Apparently in Future Sweden, homosexuality is totally accepted, which is great and all, but artists and writers are considered useless drains on society. Um, okay. People aren’t allowed to drink inside the Unit because it will damage their organs, but they can be given lethal doses of radiation until their brain has atrophied for an experiment that is never explained? If you say so. The novel is filled with amateur psychology and philosophizing, and the writing is kind of bizarre –- most of it is very choppy, but then there are also some beautifully-constructed sentences sprinkled in here and there. I’m inclined to give the author the benefit of the doubt and chalk it up to being an imperfect translation, but it did distract me from the story. The couple of sex scenes are particularly heinous examples of this -– they’re just bad
None of the other reviewers seem to have mentioned the vague anti-abortion subtext present in The Unit, which I find puzzling. At first, this reads like a feminist novel. Dorrit, the protagonist, is a self-reliant woman who mentions that her mother used to give her “a feminist talk”: “Don’t you go having kids before you can stand on your own two feet… Don’t go letting some man support you, not financially, not intellectually, not emotionally. Don’t you get caught in that trap!” Because of this, Dorrit has an abortion when she gets pregnant at a young age, and then never has a chance to marry a man and have a child to save her from the Unit because… men don’t like strong women? I don’t know what other conclusion to draw from this nonsense. But I could even let that go – I’m sure we can all agree that having an abortion is a difficult choice that can change your life -– if it weren’t for what Dorrit says later, when she gets pregnant again:
“If you think I’m going to have an abortion, you’re wrong. I will never kill my child, never!”
And with that, I lost a tremendous amount of respect for this novel. Add to that the book’s emphasis on sexist archetypes -– again, it starts off by portraying Dorrit as a strong yet feminine woman, then talks about how much she appreciates that her lover (she’s the mistress, of course) is so big and manly and can chop wood for her and change the tires on her car. Apparently, “he could have gone to jail over and over again for both the oppression of women and the improper use of male physical strength.” See, that’s another thing about this world. In Holmqvist’s post-misogynist vision, mere flirting (not in the workplace, mind you, but between mutually-interested acquaintances in a social atmosphere) is a punishable crime that women are mandated to report. That ain’t my idea of a feminist ideal, but it’s presented as if it should be.
This book, like many dystopias, desperately wants to be a political statement, but the message is so convoluted that I really wish I knew more about the author’s affiliations so I could figure out if I agree with her. Is The Unit supposed to be a feminist novel? Anti-feminist? Pro-choice or anti-choice? A vindication of child-free women or a criticism? Or is it just what it is? Am I reading too much into it because I’m sensitive to these issues? I honestly can’t figure it out.
I usually love discussing speculative fiction like this, but this novel isn’t even particularly thought-provoking because of the wishy-washy content. I noticed some other reviewers had issues with the pacing -– I didn’t find it very slow, I actually thought it was a pretty quick read –- but I also didn’t find it “horrifying” or “gripping” like most of the positive reviewers did. Mostly I was just confused, then irritated, then “meh” about the whole thing.