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26th September
2011
written by Steph

I’ve been blogging here at S&TI! for nearly three years now (I kind of can’t believe that’s true… it seems like we were just celebrating our two-year blogiversary!), and save one or two titles each year, I am very good about writing about each and every book I read. Before starting this site, I simply had an Excel spreadsheet where I noted each book I finished and then jotted down whatever impressions it left me with when I was done. This blog was meant as a way of formalizing and expanding on those notes. I have a notoriously bad memory regarding books I’ve read, so it’s good for me to write about them afterwards, otherwise years later, I’ll remember that I’ve read a book, and maybe even vaguely how I felt about it, but generally that’s about it. Writing hasn’t made my memory any better, but at the very least, I now have a pretty record of my reading history, and I admit that I do sometimes go back and read my own posts to see what I had to say about certain books. In all my time blogging AND keeping my Excel spreadsheet (which I still keep), that is to say, five years now, I have never forgotten to include a book in my spreadsheet once I finished it. Never, that is, until now. I’ve been struggling with a backlog of books to review on the site for a few months now, and just the other day I was getting excited about the fact that the number of books that I need to cover was now down to less than five. I then started to re-organize my GoodReads shelves, and I stumbled across The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist as I was cataloging books for my “Books Read in 2011” shelf and I thought I was going to have a panic attack. I knew I had read this book, and read it quite a few months ago, so how was I so close to the end of my backlog of books and yet I hadn’t talked about this book yet? I immediately opened my book log and scanned the entries for this year frantically. Holmqvist was nowhere to me found! I had somehow completely forgotten to enter this book into the list, something I have never done before! So now I’m in a bit of a pickle, because I really want to write about this book, but I know I finished it back in May and I have no notes on it and so I’m at a complete loss about what I’d like to say about it. I remember that at the time I had quite a lot of feelings about this book, which involves an older woman who lives in a society where if you reach a certain age and don’t have someone who loves or needs you (and no, dogs don’t count) or hold an important job, you get sent to a unit where you are put to good use. Which pretty much means you are experimented on and act as a walking organ farm, as ultimately your organs will be donated to others who are considered more important to society. I mean, with a topic like that, how can you read the book and not have some kind of reaction? I’m sure I had one, but what was it? I racked my brain as hard as I could, and came up with a few thoughts/reflections. First, I really like dystopian fiction, and I do remember that when I finished The Unit, I thought it was good but not great. I thought it was interesting that Holmqvist took such a sinister-sounding premise (we generally do not like to think of people as being disposable/dispensable or that human worth is so black and white) and make it relatively pleasing. While I might have balked at some of the principles that were espoused in the world where Dorrit (the protagonist… whose name I only know because I Googled the book. Durrrrrr!) lives, Holmqvist has created a world where the people in it accept the way things are run and by and large are happy to accept their fates. Nothing was done in an underhanded, sneaky fashion, people in the units weren’t being tricked into going there, everything was out in the open and accepted. Of course, I don’t think a dystopian novel would be very successful if there weren’t a critical tipping point where the protagonist questions the regime and society in which she finds herself, so I don’t think it’s giving away too much to say that Dorrit does come to question the appropriateness of the way things are run. I think what was interesting were the conclusions she comes to and the decisions she ultimately makes when faced with certain crossroads in the novel. I’d like to elaborate on those, so if you’re planning to read The Unit at some point, you may want to skip the next paragraph. Chiefly, when Dorrit discovers that she is actually pregnant, she has a moment of hope in which she thinks this will be her means of escaping the Unit as she will now be a contributing member to society as she will have a baby who loves and needs her. When she discovers this isn’t the case, that he baby will be taken from her and given to someone else to raise, she has a period of rebellion where she considers finding some way of escaping the Unit and living under the radar. Ultimately Dorrit is given the keys to her freedom and comes so close to escaping, only to ultimately return to the Unit, give birth, and resigns herself to dying very soon. What’s interesting in this ending is that Dorrit acts freely the entire time and ultimately decides that it is the right thing to do to return to the Unit and live out her remaining days there. She isn’t brainwashed or forced to return due to failure, but thinks about all the possible outcomes and decides her place is at the Unit. I thought that was a rather interesting slant for the book to take, as normally dystopian fiction leaves one with the sense that some important liberty has been lost when the trajectory of the world is the same following the story as it was at its start. I won’t say that I didn’t feel frustrated with Dorrit specifically and The Unit as a whole when I finished it, because I am certain I was, but I honestly can’t remember at this point what that discontent was rooted in. I think I found the pacing of the book rather slow, because even though it wasn’t long, I think a LOT of time was spent simply world building and describing every possible room/feature of the Unit Dorrit was living in, and while some of that was interesting to a certain degree, stories are more than the setting they take place in so I think I eventually was ready for the novel to get on with itself. I also think that while there were a few new spins on the dystopian genre, I’m not sure that The Unit really prompted me to think deeply about any of the issues it presented (even if the notion how we value one another and ourselves is worth considering), and obviously it didn’t move me or stay with me in any concrete way. It wasn’t a book I was sad that I read, and I do think that it was a fairly swift read that was a lot more enjoyable to me than the similar Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, but for me, it wasn’t a life-changer. Rating: 3.5 out of 5

15 Comments

  1. 09/26/2011

    I wish so much you had written down your thoughts back in May, because this is one of my top books of the year and it really blew me away. I loved the way it ended and I loved the idea of a dystopia where no one is manipulated, brainwashed, or tortured. I could definitely see why their society evolved to be what it is, and I found the world very believable. I remember in my review I even said that in some ways, I thought the unit Dorrit was in sounded almost like a kind of paradise at times! I still think about this one all the time even though it’s been almost six months since I read it.

  2. I remember getting really cross with this book! There were so many holes in the plot that nothing was believable. It is a shame because there were some good plot ideas floating around. I agree with almost all the points you make – the only one I disagree with is that this is more enjoyable than Never Let You Go. I think Ishiguro’s book is far supierior, but we can’t agree on everything 🙂 and overall it sounds as though this was a fairly average read for both of us.

  3. 09/26/2011

    I quite liked The Unit when I read it, largely because of the setting that you’re so impatient with. 🙂 I was struck by the complete reasonableness of this world that Holmqvist created, so reasonable I was like, why don’t we do that, and then I was like, oh yes, I see that there are some downsides.

    And I read it about a month before Never Let Me Go, so I was sorely disappointed by the latter, even though I recognized that it was good in its own way!

  4. 09/26/2011

    I find it really hard to capture a book if I don’t make notes while reading and make them make sense shortly afterwards: my memory is terrible and the feeling of the read slips beyond my grasp too quickly. (Sometimes I wonder why I bother to read, I remember so little afterwards!)

    This was one of my favourites of last year (my thoughts are here if you’re curious). I read it all in a burst, in an evening and the following day, and I remember having a hard time catching hold of myself on the streetcar that second day (with one awfully sad bit). It may have just been perfect timing for me…

  5. 09/26/2011

    Is it mean to say I’m glad someone else has as bad of a memory as I do? I’m always looking up book synopses (is that the plural?) to find out character names. If I took notes, it would help, but I’ve never been able to get in the habit.

  6. 09/27/2011

    While I was reading this, I was thinking how similar it sounded to Never Let Me Go, which I liked a lot. I have been very curious about this book, and at one point there was a lot of blog hype over it, which sort of made me a little less eager to read it. Seeing that it was sort of forgettable to you also makes me wonder again if I want to invest the time in reading it, or pass it up. I admit that the premise intrigues, but I am not exactly sure if this one would tread the same ground that I have already walked with Never Let Me Go, so I remain unsure.

  7. 09/27/2011

    @ Amanda: Trust me, no one is more disappointed about this missed entry than I am! I am thinking I might have read this around the time when I was starting to feel really burned out and exhausted and so I must have finished the book late at night before going to bed and thought to myself I’d enter it in my log the next day and then promptly forgot about it. I know this one was one you really enjoyed so I hate that my memory of it is so hazy!
     
    @ Jackie: We can’t agree on everything, but it’s nice that we tend to feel similarly so often! 😉 I think I liked this one more than the Ishiguro because I felt the writing was more evocative and emotional than Ishiguro’s which really fell flat to me. Now that I think of it, there was a bit early on when Dorritt is talking about leaving behind her dog that really made me tear up simply because it so perfectly expressed how I feel about my own dogs! All I ever felt with NLMG was annoyance! 😀
     
    @ Alison: Everything I posted here about the book must be taken with a huge grain of salt since I can’t fully remember my reactions, but I do think that while I found elements of the world interesting, I wanted to know more about the characters and how they felt about the situations they were in. That’s the part of the novel that felt most universal to me anyway, this concept of how we determine a person’s worth on both a personal and objective level.
     
    @ Buried in Print: Thanks so much for linking to your review! Reading other people’s reactions has been nice, and jogged some of my own memories, I think! Normally I try to write notes as soon as I finish a book, or at most a day or two afterwards (if I feel I need to let things chrystalize), though obviously I failed to do so this time…
     
    @ softdrink: I tend to think I have a pretty decent memory in general, but not when it comes to plots in books! Sometimes I quite like this, though, since it means if I wait long enough, it means I can re-read old favorites and almost have it be like the first time all over again! 😉
     
    @ zibilee: I do think that although there are some superficial similarities between this and NLMG, it is not entirely appropriate to compare the two, because there are some important differences between the two as well. As I said to Jackie, I personally thought this book was a lot more evocative and emotional than NLMG (which I guess I would say might ultimately be more haunting), but I think in some ways the two suffered from feeling overly shallow. I think there would be elements that you would appreciate here if you ever read it, but that said, I’m not sure you need to bend over backwards to do so!

  8. 09/27/2011

    Your memory is pretty impressive, if you ask me! I totally totally agree with your final paragraph!

  9. 09/27/2011

    I applaud you for being able to assemble a review after this many months! I skipped the spoiler paragraph but the premise of the book is enough to make me want to read it.

  10. 09/27/2011

    Steph, I think you remembered quite a bit for having read it months ago – great review 🙂 As far as the book itself – I loved it! It was one of my favorite reads and one that really stayed with me for quite some time. Definitely enjoyed it more than Never Let Me Go.

  11. 09/27/2011

    @ Jill: Ha! I’m glad someone thinks my mind is something other than a sieve! 😉 I think I remember a lot of what happens near the end of the book, but not too much about the beginning, and many of the nuances are now lost to me (and character names!)… then again, I guess most of the action happens near the end, so perhaps it’s ok that most of the start is a blur to me now!
     
    @ Kathleen: I’m glad I got something up that others who have read the book feel is fair and accurate! I certainly won’t be making this mistake again, though! I shall diligently fill out that Excel log after each book, and also strive to not fall so far behind in my reviews! 😀
     
    @ Nadia: I do remember you enjoyed this one quite a lot, which is certainly part of why I picked this one up when one of our Borders was doing its bankruptcy sale. I think I always have ridiculously high expectations when it comes to dystopian fiction, which I am sure didn’t help in terms of my overall reaction to this one.

  12. Steph, only you to write such a great review about a book you don’t remember much about. It’s a gift! 🙂

  13. 09/29/2011

    Wonderful review, Steph! I have heard of Nini Holmqvist’s book but I haven’t read it yet. It looks like a wonderful book. Glad to know that you liked the book, tbough you didn’t love it. I liked this sentence from your review very much – “I don’t think a dystopian novel would be very successful if there weren’t a critical tipping point where the protagonist questions the regime and society in which she finds herself” – it is so beautiful 🙂

  14. 10/07/2011

    This book sounds very interesting, but I am not sure that I am ready to read another book about organ donation so soon after NLMG. Probably, need to give it some more time.

  15. 10/09/2011

    @ Nishita: I think this book is an interesting complement to NLMG but I think you’d do better to have a break between the two so that you can experience The Unit as its own book.

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