The Unit is at once a painful book to read and yet remarkably absorbing. It is so believable that it horrified me. Once I finished reading it, I felt like a swimming pool inflatable with all the air let out, left to bob hopelessly under a darkened sky. The story (which is a first person narrative) tells us about Dorrit who has just turned fifty and is taken to the unit. Any woman who gets to the age of fifty and any man who gets to the age of sixty without having any dependents are classed as dispensible. This means that if they do not have any children or a partner to say that they are needed and loved then they are required to give themselves over to the unit. There are units all over Sweden.
When Dorrit arrives at the unit, she is angry and frightened but surprised by how much luxury they are given. The unit is a vast and considerable dome in which the residents have their own bedrooms and kitchenettes. There is a cinema, a library, a theatre, a garden that is constantly in bloom, a state of the art sports facility and multiple restaurants. Each resident is given the opportunity to spend their free time pursuing their own personal interest. Dorrit's friend Majken is an artist and is planning an exhibition of her work in the unit's gallery. The unit is highly civilised but in every possible place there are cameras and microphones. Everything that the residents do and say is observed and monitored.
Every month new dispensibles arrive and are given a welcome party. For the first four days in the unit, the residents are given free time to adjust and find their equilibrium. Then they go through a day of rigorous assessment. They go through every possible test, blood, tissue, DNA, and that is followed by a gruelling fitness test. The data is used by the scientists and researchers in the unit to assign experiments for the dispensables to take part in. Some of the experiments are risk free about measuring levels of fatigue after exercising for example, some of the experiments are psychological and some are quite frankly terrifying - like being used to test the effects gases used in chemical weapons.
The dispensible go through various stages in their time in the unit. Each person ends their days with their final donation. That is to say their vital organs are taken and given to a candidate in the outside world who needs them. The people in the outside world are the "needed". They serve society in one way or another.
I could go on explaining how things work but this review would be dissertation length. The other defining thing about this society is that the oppression of women is illegal. I know that sounds like a wonderful thing but remember this book is dystopian and even something that should be empowering can be distorted and corrupt.
One of the things that really struck me about this book is that you could see that this concept had so much potential to actually happen. As people in our society age, we become burdened by the need to look after them. This book offers one way to eradicate that problem. It frightened me in its believability. If one chooses to live without a family, without a partner, one is effectively condemned to incarceration (leading to abuse and death) at a set date. What vile horror!
The other thing that struck me is that Dorrit comes to think of the way the unit treats them as humane. I was reading it thinking, yes, they do treat you well, but you need to ask why! The dispensible become institutionalised.
Overall, The Unit is powerful, beautifully written and conceptually amazing. Not an uplifting read but certainly a thought-provoking one.
Dorrit inhabits a world where society is split into two camps. Not male or female, or young or old, but those who are Necessary and an asset to their communities versus those who are Dispensable and a drain on civilization. It's not a birth right, nor a class firmly established from childhood, and everyone gets the chance to make a good go of it. But, if you're a childless woman of 50, or a childless man of 60, and not working in a 'needed' industry your time is up, and you are quietly, and without any fuss, transported to a Second Reserve Bank Unit for Biological Material ('the Unit') where you will spend the rest of your days. Here you will participate in any number of psychological and physiological experiments, donate cells for research and give up your body parts one by one as Needed people require them, until the day of your final donation when you ultimately and rather ironically become a valuable member of society by losing your life.
Dorrit is an intelligent and emotional heroine for whom relocation to the Unit is an unfortunate but inevitable continuation of a life that until now has been unremarkable. Having forged few friendships in the real world, and left no lasting impact in her various employments, she is typical of those surrounding her in her new home. And yet she quickly finds that her new neighbours are far from dull, and her new home far from boring. In fact, for the first time ever she finds she is surrounded by people just like her, and thanks to the cashless society within her new bubble, can also live the sort of comfortable lifestyle that always eluded her before. When she finds herself in an extremely unusual situation for an inmate, however, Dorrit is torn between accepting defeat or attempting the unthinkable and disobeying the powers that be.
Translated from the Swedish, this book has a rather detached, clinical feel to it which works well as a metaphor for the ambience of the Unit. It takes a while to get used to the passing of time and the flits back to memories of times past, but ultimately this book is engaging and captivating once you get into it, and very much worth persevering with - I had to start it 3 times and finally put aside a decent period of time to plough through most of the first section, but I'm very glad I did. Though set in Sweden, there are few geographical or cultural references pinning the Unit to Scandinavia and it could be located anywhere. Maybe it is - once inside, all ties with the outside world are cut off, the entire complex is internal, even the parks and gardens, and there isn't so much as a window into the outside world. There are no time references of note, nor comments on technology present or future, and as such the story can be seen as contemporary to the time it is being read...unless the future brings societal changes on such a scale it's hard to imagine today.
The story is at once both an intriguing and highly imaginative look at an alternative universe and a simple story of finding love and a place in the world. It raises a number of moral and ethical questions, crucially the Orwellian query of whether it's possible that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.
Because Units of this kind are clearly an established and accepted part of Dorrit's world, the majority of the residents seem resigned to their fate and little time is spent bemoaning the fact that they are cooped up in a windowless prison as human lab rats when the other half of the world are outside reaping the benefits of their research. This is not a depressing tale, but somewhat optimistic despite the circumstances and confirmation that hope springs eternal. What is perhaps unusual about this story is that there are no daring, rebellious characters who are forever hatching plans to escape, or to publicize the plight of those inside to the unsuspecting outside world, who know Units exist, but have little idea about what actually goes on within. Instead we have a group of friends taking advantage of the opportunities they now have - to eat out every night, to enjoy the theatre for free, to select the latest fashions, to spend days on end lounging in the sauna or lying on the grass reading. Because, for all this is in some ways a human zoo, there's no denying it's a well equipped, rather plush one.
The only thing I found missing from the book was some sort of explanation as to how the world had evolved to this state. It was clear what that state was, but not why it had come into place. From Dorrit's view Units seemed to have been something that existed at least throughout her lifetime, if not for a number of generations before, but common sense suggests they could not always have existed, and that someone, somewhere would have had to make the case for population control and manipulation on this grand scale in the first place.
In spite of this, I found 'The Unit' to be a thought-provoking, if a little chilling read. The story is extremely 'neat' with few ends left unfinished and though we meet some of the residents only shortly before their final donations, each is well rounded and 3-dimensional with clear characterisation. For a debut novel I thought it was stunning, if slightly concerning, and it certainly gives a great deal of food for thought.
I got my copy from The Bookbag - you can get yours on Amazon for a few very well spent pounds.