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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Unit

Ninni Holmqvist

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To purchase The Unit

Title: The Unit
Author: Ninni Holmqvist
Genre: Novel
Written: 2006 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 268 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: The Unit - US
The Unit - UK
The Unit - Canada
Die Entbehrlichen - Deutschland
  • Swedish title: Enhet
  • Translated by Marlaine Delargy

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Our Assessment:

B : written well enough, but very creepy and not entirely convincing

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 24/9/2008 Arnd Rühle
The New Yorker . 31/8/2009 .
Svenska Dagbladet . 18/9/2006 Eva Johansson
The Washington Post . 30/6/2009 Marcela Valdes
Welt am Sonntag . 9/3/2008 Matthias Wulff

  From the Reviews:
  • "Hätte sie die Kraft und den Mut gefunden, die Redundanzen, die Befindlichkeitswucherungen, die etwas ermüdenden Beschreibungen ihres Vorlebens zu streichen, man könnte von einem beachtlichen Roman sprechen." - Arnd Rühle, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The novel’s thought experiment has limited scope, but Holmqvist evocatively details the experiences of a woman who falls in love with another resident, and at least momentarily attempts to escape her fate." - The New Yorker

  • "Ninni Holmqvist skriver med en effektiv blandning av varm inlevelse och registrerande kyla, och jag dras snabbt in i hennes klaustrofobiska framtidsvision. Ett bra tag ser Enhet ut att vara en riktigt bra roman. Men någonstans efter halva boken tappar berättelsen fart och börjar trampa runt i samma spår. (...) Hennes första roman är hur som helst inte helt lyckad. Vore jag riktigt cynisk skulle jag till och med kalla den umbärlig." - Eva Johansson, Svenska Dagbladet

  • "Holmqvist's spare prose interweaves the Unit's pleasures and cruelties with exquisite matter-of-factness, so that readers actually begin to wonder: On balance, is life better as a pampered lab bunny or as a lonely indigent? But then she turns the screw, presenting a set of events so miraculous and abominable that they literally made me gasp." - Marcela Valdes, The Washington Post

  • "So seltsam es klingen mag, aber Holmqvist hat damit eine Liebeserklärung an das Leben, an die Natur geschrieben. (...) Die Insassen haben keine Wahl, sie können nur das Datum der Endspende frei wählen. Holmqvists erster Roman, deren Handlung sie mit vielen Dialogen vorantreibt, ist nicht nur ziemlich traurig, sondern auch eine spannende Lektüre." - Matthias Wulff, Welt am Sonntag

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Unit posits a Sweden that's pretty much like the familiar contemporary Sweden, with one big social policy twist: those members of society deemed "dispensable" -- without children, unmarried, in what are considered unessential jobs -- are removed from it (at age fifty for women and sixty for men), interned at special facilities, and ... put to use in ways beneficial for the remaining indispensable citizenry. Drugs and medical treatments are tried out on them, for example, but their main purpose is to serve as organ donors, taken apart piecemeal until that final donation. Some fit individuals even last six or seven years before it's curtains.
       The Unit is narrated by Dorrit Weger, describing her time at the Second Reserve Bank Unit from when she first arrives after she turns fifty. It says something about the society in which she lives that her profession is considered dispensable: Dorrit is a writer (and not the only one at the Unit). Family and personal connection trump all, and while Dorrit had a devoted lover he was married and thus didn't count, so when she hit fifty it was time for her to be dragged off to the farm. Except that she wasn't dragged. She knew what was coming, she prepared for it, and she went more or less willingly.
       Part of what makes The Unit almost unbearably creepy is the passivity and acquiescence of all the actors. Dorrit describes barely taking note of the policy when it was first debated decades earlier, and then when the referendum was held, the ugly reality of the consequences only eventually dawning on her. But, of course, the policy can be rationalized: it's for the greater good, it helps society. At least a certain kind of family-centric society (but who could oppose that ?). And so everyone more or less goes along with it, from those making the dispensable ones comfortable at the Unit -- where they really do live quite well -- to the dispensable ones themselves.
       Sure, Dorrit (and the others) have their ups and downs, but for the most part they go with the inexorable fatalistic flow. Dorrit is relieved when the experiment she is assigned to -- studying the effects of strenuous exercise -- means that she won't have to start donating immediately, but she also pretty much shrugs her shoulders when it's time to pull that first kidney.
       Needless to say, the Unit has some weird vibes. All the help is so helpful and understanding, and life is pretty good -- better than low-income-earning writer Dorrit ever had it -- but, of course, people are constantly being wheeled off for operations that remove vital parts, and everyone eventually goes in for that final operation. In a way it's like a fancy suicide clinic, where the patients are nudged towards that final deed -- which, here, is also a generous sacrifice.
       As Dorrit is told by the man she takes as her lover -- told in "a teasing, almost mocking tone of voice" --:

"You can be yourself here, totally yourself."
       But the dispensable ones' freedoms are actually quite limited: they may be dispensable, but only in the way the state determines. They are under constant surveillance at the Unit, cameras in all corners of their rooms constantly trained on them. The reason is obvious: they can't be allowed to harm themselves (or, god forbid, off themselves): they have complete freedom to be themselves except in the greatest sense, since they ultimately have no autonomy. Even if it is only the autonomy of self-destruction, they are denied that, and with that they are denied everything.
       Still, the authorities go through the pretense of preserving even that autonomy, as best they can: the dispensable ones can choose when their final donation is to be made. But that is still only the freedom of the condemned wo/man.
       Holmqvist does add a few more twists, as Dorrit's experience is one of the more unusual ones for a dispensable person (and suggests the qualifications for in/dispensability are not quite as clear-cut as they really should be before anyone is put in one of these units ...). Dorrit also takes a lover, loses some friends, and finds an ally who believes she perhaps does deserve a bit more autonomy. There are also various goings-on at the unit itself -- day-to-day life, art exhibits, the various experiments -- and Holmqvist almost fatally undermines her already only precariously plausible tale by having one of the drug-experiments go terribly awry (given how important what the dispensable ones have to offer is, it's hard to believe they could be treated so carelessly in this particular instance).
       It is all quite well presented, even if it is a very creepy and unpleasant tale. But it doesn't feel convincing enough: no matter how brainwashed, it's hard to believe the characters' almost uniform passivity. Nor is there much debate or questioning of the policy of chopping apart people itself; in dirigiste European countries where large-scale social planning is more common the book's premise may not sound all too far-fetched, but Americans may well have a hard time thinking of this as anything other than, at best, Soviet-style insanity (and they'll likely be particularly frustrated by the characters' (and society's) unwillingness to denounce and oppose what is going on).
       There's an uneasy mix of social and philosophical criticism here: for much of the novel Holmqvist seems to want the situation to speak for itself and the readers to come to their own conclusions (a perfectly valid approach), but elsewhere she does have the characters engage in some thought and discussion about the matters, too -- but without ever letting them really tackle them. So the book dances too awkwardly around the issues. Too bad -- the emotional power is there.
       An odd and not particularly agreeable read, but of some interest.

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 May 2009

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The Unit: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Ninni Holmqvist was born in 1958.

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