Ninni Holmqvist’s The Unit (2006)
Trans. Marlaine Delargy (2009)

I started reading this one evening when I got home from work and I jumped out of my guilty reader’s skin when Mr. B.I.P. came home from work because I had planned to do a dozen different things and, instead, had ended up just sitting there, reading, for more than an hour.

So, there I was, on page 75, saying: I really want to stop reading this book, but I can’t.

Now I might have said the same thing about Pat Capponi’s The Corpse Will Keep or about Ann-Marie Macdonald’s Fall on Your Knees. I found them both engaging reads this March and consistently read another chapter (or two) after I’d planned to set my book aside.

But with The Unit, I wasn’t having fun: I was compelled to keep reading and it was an awful, disturbing, sad story and I could not stop reading because I had to know the next awful, disturbing, sad thing that was going to happen.

I was reading with my jaw slightly agape, my shoulders hunched, feeling awful, disturbed and sad.

So you might think it strange, then, that the next thing I’m going to say is that you should read this awful, disturbing, sad story.

If you admired Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Harpman’s I Who Have Never Known Men, or Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, you should not only add this Swedish novel to your TBR pile but to your list of books to buy and press on your friends.

Why did I add it to my own TBR list? Often I can’t recall how a certain book has come to my attention, but in this case, it’s easy: a media campaign in the city that plasters single-sheet adverts on public postal boxes throughout the city.

Not the candy-apple-red post-boxes, but the upright, grey rectangles, the clinical looking boxes in which the mail is stored between delivery times.

And how fitting that this book be advertised on cold, hard, steel.

But, in contrast, it does not begin with discomfort, but like this: “It was more comfortable than I could have imagined. A room of my own with a bathroom, or rather an apartment of my own, because there were two rooms…”

From the opening sentence, with its open allusion to Woolf’s famous work, it’s clear that sex and gender will be at the heart of this novel and that’s true.

Motherhood and reproductive rights and responsibilities, equality between the sexes: these are considered in the context of a society that might be ours in a few years time.

In this society, women and men who are not “needed” (meaning they do not work in essential professions that contribute significantly to the gross national product or that they do not have children) are dispensable after the age of fifty and sixty (respectively). They are admitted to and housed in a facility which makes the best use it can of the body’s remaining years, testing new products or drugs whilst donating superfluous body parts in a sequence of assignments, until the body has reached its maximum usefulness and the essential organs are to be donated to people who are “needed”.

In essence, these people enter the facility knowing that they won’t be leaving it again alive but, simultaneously, enter into a community of similarly situated people. This group has been made to feel inferior for so many years (for not having been needed) that they cannot help but respond to the sense of belonging that proliferates amongst those grappling with the paradox of uselessness and usefulness in the later years of their lives.

The language is very straightforward and I was grateful for this because I found it a very emotional read. It was (and I can hear you saying it with me now) awful, disturbing, and sad; it was compelling and memorable and it deserves to be read and talked about.