Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Recommended Reading: The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist

I recently read The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist, and highly recommend this novel, though it may give you nightmares, especially if you’re a woman, and especially if you’re a woman of “a certain age.” While the premise may sound sort of sci-fi, be assured that this is a beautifully written book, nicely paced and enthralling.

Basically, this Swedish society has determined that women who reach their fiftieth birthday and aren’t married with kids; who aren’t “needed”—or involved in important helping professions—or rich celebrities—get sent off to The Unit, where they live in idyllic luxury while undergoing medical and psychological experimentation until their organs are finally harvested and given to some mother with four kids who really, really, really needs those lungs. (Men get to stay out in the world until they’re sixty.) There’s no big “reveal” where Dorrit learns this is her fate; everyone knows the set-up from the beginning.

The relationships that develop within the Unit are beautiful and complicated, as is the exploration of what’s been left behind—dog lovers, prepare to weep—and the implications of living within this “paradise”. The political angles are sharp yet subtle, the bigger questions raised are uncomfortable, and if you think there’s no way someone can possibly write a satisfying ending to such a set-up…well, you’d definitely lose that bet in my assessment.

A smart, haunting book: if you liked Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, you’ll probably also like this one.

Here’s a sample from Chapter 2:

“I didn’t cry until I said good-bye Jock, my dog; we’d been so close for so many years. He’s a Danish-Swedish farm dog, white with black and brown patches, brown eyes, and ears that are as soft as velvet, one black and one white. I gave him to a family I knew and trusted, not far from where I lived. Lisa and Sten and their three children. They’ve got a smallholding with horses and chickens, and they were very fond of Jock. The children loved him. I knew he liked them too, and that he’d have a good life there. But even so. He was mine, after all. And I was his. Between him and ne you really could—without committing perjury—talk about love. The feeling was mutual, I ‘m, convinced of that. But dogs don’t count; a dog’s dependence and devotion are not enough. And it was when I had left Jock at Sten and Lisa’s and I was driving away that I wept.”

And here’s the review from the Washington Post that brought the book to my attention. (Yes, publishers, reviews DO still sell books: please support book review sections with your advertising!)


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.