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Ninni Holmqvist ()

In Imagined Future, Elder Care Comes At A Price

Jul 2, 2009

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In a society driven toward endless economic growth and constant progress, what is the value of those who have no compulsion to contribute? The hippies and the misfits, the childless and the off-the-grid, those who just want to lead a quiet life. Ninni Holmqvist has a dark vision of what could happen to these outsiders if a government suddenly decided they were disposable.

In Holmqvist's tense and dark novel The Unit, men and women who have decided not to reproduce, who work in nonessential fields like the arts and who are unmarried, are labeled "dispensable." At the age of 50 for women, and 60 for men, they are rounded up and sent to The Unit.

Among them is Dorrit, a lonely writer who never wed or had children because she was in love with a married man. Dorrit and the others are well taken care of, fed and housed with plentiful leisure time and social activities. But they are also used as subjects for medical and psychological tests, and bits of them are harvested for transplantation — a cornea here, a kidney there — until someone needs their heart or lungs or liver.

The Unit reads almost as a delayed coming of age story; Dorritt blossoms in her new home and finally finds a way to open herself up to friends and a lover. It just so happens that this story is set against an ominous background, where her new friends disappear suddenly, and others show up at the breakfast table newly blind from cornea donations. The way Holmqvist blends Dorritt's awakening with dystopian dread is reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier's tales of budding romance and mysterious deaths.

It's a smart time, politically, for the release of The Unit. Everyone by now is familiar with the dark side of society's blind greed. Holmqvist is from Sweden and has certainly witnessed Europe's anxiety about its falling birthrates. Leaders ask their people — and sometimes bribe them — to have children for the good of the nation. It's probably no coincidence that her plot hinges on the characters' childlessness.

The Unit is no political screed, however. Instead of simply railing against societal expectations, Holmqvist uses a wide-angle lens. The employees who knowingly line up these men and women for their execution are not monsters out of a Nazi casting call. Nor are The Unit's tenants helpless victims. The novel does occasionally slip into heavy-handedness; at times the plot serves Holmqvist's thesis more than the story. But the humanity with which she writes her characters and the world of The Unit makes up for it. Echoing work by Marge Piercy and Margaret Atwood, The Unit is as thought-provoking as it is compulsively readable.

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