The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

dispensible

I do love a good dystopian novel, so when I read about this one I had to get my hands on it.  The trouble with them, though, is that they get me so wound up, and this one is particularly emotionally hard hitting.  In this future the world seems pretty much as now, except socially (so, no crazy technology or robot overlords or anything like that.)  In this world there is a strange blend of mandated gender equality (women must not be dependent on men, both men and women must work, children must be in daycare, men must not do heavy work for women) and a value on having a partner and children that is so high it outvalues anything else.

When women turn 50 (men, 60) if they do not have a “needed” career and do not have children they are deemed “dispensible” and sent to the Unit.  This is the name for the Reserve Bank of Biological Material, or, as one of the characters calls it, a “luxury slaughterhouse.”  Here the dispensibles live in luxury, with every need met.  They are very well taken care of because they are very valuable.  They are used for research experiments (psychological and physical) and as organ donors.  Most people start out by giving a kidney and then more and more of them is given away.  The final donation is the heart and lungs.  The dispensibles live in these strange circumstances for a few years at most.  Everyone knows it is only a matter of time until they are dead, but until then they all find ways to live fully.

When Dorrit arrives she is told at her orientation that most people there feel that they finally fit in.  This turns out to be quite true.  At 50 Dorrit has a close circle of friends and is surrounded by love.  It is absolutely heart wrenching to read about Dorrit falling in love, knowing that her life is considered dispensible simply because she didn’t reproduce. The notion that your life is only valuable if you have a child is absurd, clearly, but it is really interesting how Dorrit explains how it gradually came about.  That most of the people there are intellectuals or artistic also says something about the kinds of people this future society values.

I found this a really emotional novel- reading Dorrit’s beautiful love story, her rage at the injustice of her society, her grief for dog (of course this stood out to me!), it was just all really well put together.  And by the way, this is a Swedish novel and translated really well.  I thought it was written originally in English, actually.

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