Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist — 272 pgs

In this dystopian thriller, a woman whose life has been deemed superfluous is housed in a state-of-the-art facility to begin the gradual harvesting of her organs for dispersal to those who are deemed more socially necessary. When Dorrit arrives at the unit, she knows the future that awaits her. Being without children or loved ones to care for her, she’s somewhat blasé about living out her final days in a place where all her creature comforts are provided for, but where her life will ultimately be robbed from her in a slow succession of surgeries and experiments. In this strange society, any person who either lacks children or a profession that is deemed somehow worthy to society is considered a “dispensable” person. When these dispensables reach the age of maturity, they become prisoners of the unit and begin to be medically sacrificed for the greater good. As Dorrit begins to adjust to this new life and starts to make friends, she begins to discover that the connections she lacked in the outside world are now hers for the taking. But it’s when she finds love at the unit, a love unlike any she’s been privileged to know, that she starts to question her ultimate sacrifice and that of those around her. In this stark and frightening novel, a world of brutal and unfeeling economy emerges, and the fate of Dorrit and her lover are suspended over the bleak and oppressive maw of those in charge of the unit.

When I told my husband the premise of this book, his comment was “A Swedish book that deals with the horrors of socialized medicine?” I of course thought that was hilarious, but I digress. When I started seeing the reviews for this book all over the Internet, I was immediately intrigued by the story but felt that it might turn out to be a something of a derivative version of Never Let Me Go, which in some ways it was. In my opinion, you can only read this story and be truly horrified by it and its implications once, and so this book failed to be as gripping and moving for me the second time around. Yes, there were new things done with the storyline and new angles explored, but in my eyes, this book was probably not as groundbreaking and revelatory as the author had planned it to be.

I listened to this book on audio, and the narrator, Suzanne Toren, was a good choice for this book but not all that pleasant for me to listen to. Part of it I think had to do with the book itself. The sentences and dialogue were very clipped and almost terse, and Toren seemed to revel in this fact to the point that her narration almost sounded clinical. I guess that fits with the theme of the book, but I felt that the story combined with this particular narrator felt cold and sometimes wooden. The emotions of the characters didn’t have the necessary human warmth that enabled me to feel compassion for them, and as such, I felt the story stayed on the surface with me. The detachment I felt for the characters and their plights had everything to do with the way Holmqvist wrote them, and it was a surreal experience to be aware of the author attempting to move her audience and to feel myself remaining aloof. To a certain point, I remained unengaged the entire way through and was only invested for the sake of curiosity in how the story would eventually end.

The book used a lot of the same terminology that was used in Never Let Me Go, and that bothered me for a few reasons. These two books told basically the same story, one from the perspective of the young and one from the perspective of the old, and I ended up finding less to enjoy about this second version. It felt a little bit manipulative to tell you the truth, and all along as I was reading, I was very aware of the author behind the curtains pulling the strings to make the audience react. The book also had a very slow build-up and was frankly boring at times. It wasn’t until about the third quarter that I finally started becoming invested and wanting to know how it ended. As far as audiobooks go, this was by far the least compelling book I’ve listened to in a long time, and this was due in part to the choice of narrator as well as the plodding feeling of the writing.

I was also really angered by the ending and felt that it made no sense. I can’t really explore that too fully here for fear of spoilers, but to say it enraged me would be an understatement. I felt like all I had learned about Dorrit became forfeit and I really didn’t know her at all. This was maddening because I had spent so much time looking through her eyes only to have her do an about face that didn’t ring true to me. In my mind, I can think of quite a few alternate endings that I would have found preferable, even exciting, but it was not to be. I think Holmqvist intended this book to speak quietly and carry a big stick, but it just didn’t work for me at all. The conclusion lacked the punch I know it was supposed to deliver because it was so much of a rebuttal of what had gone previously. I felt cut off and adrift when I finished it and felt that the final chapter was extremely disingenuous.

I can’t say that I had a good time with this book, or that it left me thinking. All it really did was make me mad that I had spent so much time with it only to be left hanging in space. Since this book and Never Let Me Go tell a very similar story, I would advise the latter over the former for many reasons, but mostly because I felt that Ishiguro got the emotional resonance in his book just right, where this one just felt sterile and cold. Not a favorite by far.

27 comments:

Sandy Nawrot said...

You're not the first person that has made this comment about this book. I guess maybe if we would have all read this book first, it made have made more impact, but I doubt many did. Plus these cheap trick twists don't sit well with me either. (Like that Sophie Hannah book.) It feels so contrived when they do things like that.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I definitely admit to skimming over some of the descriptions of the place - booorrring. And I was disappointed at the ending. Still, I felt it was inevitable (especially if it wasn't slated for trilogy-ville). But I thought the "dystopia" was way more pleasant than the one of Never Let Me Go, so I was happier with it. In fact, now I can't even think of the what-used-to-be-a-romantic phrase "never let me go" without it being ruined by thinking dystopic thoughts! :--)

Harvee said...

I have Never Let Me Go on my Kindle ready to be read, after I get through the mammoth 1Q84!

TheBookGirl said...

This is not one that I would have picked up anyway, but after reading your review I know I'll pass. How disappointing it sounds, and I have to say that I get infuriated when I feel like the author has crafted an ending that is just totatlly out of sync with the rest of the book.

Ti said...

I agree. The ending threw me and Dorritt was a bit of a twit throughout. I had read The Unit first and then just recently read Never Let Me Go and Never is executed much better.

Darlene said...

I have this one on my shelves somewhere and I remember when it was first out it had good reviews but I never got around to it. After reading your thoughts I doubt I will as I also have Never Let Me Go on my reader. Guess I'll read that one first.

bermudaonion said...

I was 50 when I read this and I've never read Never Let Me Go, so I was horrified by it all. I think it makes a statement about what our society thinks of aging - avoid it at all cost!

Tracy said...

Never Let Me Go is on my Christmas wishlist - and when I read your introductory paragraph I instantly thought of this one, so much so that I'm afraid I didn't read the whole thing to avoid spoiling my 'enjoyment' (if that's the right description) of Ishiguro's novel.

Dawn @ sheIsTooFondOfBooks said...

Oh, gosh, this book did NOT work for you!

I read the review, but knew from the opening that it wasn't a book for me, either (I tend to stay away from dystopia).

Kudos to you for listening to the end, and for trying to find something positive in it.

Anna said...

I enjoyed this book a lot more than you did, but I had similar feelings about the ending.

Jenny said...

I own this book and have been wanting to read it for a whole so I'm disappointed! Or maybe I shouldn't feel so bad because I also have Never Let Me Go and I probably would have read that first anyway. Although I had no idea the storyline of that was in any way related to this!! I'm very curious about NLMG now.

Suko said...

Wonderful review, in spite of the fact that this book fell below your expectations. Thanks for an honest and well-written review, Zibilee.

Mrs Q Book Addict said...

I'm not sure this one is for me. I have Never Let Me Go but I haven't read it yet.

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

Ohhhhh sorry about the disappointing ending on this one. I hate when something like that happens - haven't read this one so I can't give an opinion.

nomadreader said...

Great review. I've heard good and bad things about this one, but I've been meaning to read Never Let Me Go for far too long, so I'll make time for that one instead. I hope your next read is better!

Aarti said...

Oh, bummer. I'm sorry this one didn't work well for you, but I can see why if it felt so derivative of Never Let Me Go. In one way, I feel really bad for an author whose storyline was scooped by someone else (or thought of completely separately, but done first). But in another way... well, no one wants to write a book that is inevitably compared unfavorably to another.

Vasilly said...

Love your husband's comment! Your review is the first that mentions Never Let Me Go and compares it with The Unit. After reading your great review, I'm definitely going to pass on this book and read NLMG instead.

Heather @ Book Addiction said...

Never Let Me Go is one of my favorites, so I would expect to like this one, but based on your review I think I'll skip it. There are plenty of other dystopias for me to enjoy!

Nymeth said...

This has been highly recommended to me so many times! It's kind of refreshing to read your review. I LOVED Never Let Me Go, so I wonder if the similarities would bother me too.

Audra said...

I got super excited by the premise but your review has me diving for Never Let Me Go -- which I've wanted to read anyway -- as the clipped narrative style is not something I'm wild about it.

Also, your husband is hilarious -- I sputtered out my water when I read that line!

Jenners said...

Well done!! I just read this too and I liked it a bit more than you but it didn't set my world on fire. In my review (to come soon), I also likened it to Never Let Me Go. It was very very similar in many ways. It did feel clinical too. I never really got invested in the characters like I've done in other books. Cold and clinical are good ways to describe the writing. Dorrit felt that way too.

Aths said...

It would bother me so much to read a book that reminds me of another book strongly. I like references, but not near-identical plots. I doubt I would be able to enjoy this one either, but totally admire you for reading it and letting us know. Thanks for the fabulous review!!

Amy said...

I'm kind of shocked that the author basically rewrote Isiguro's novel and made enough changes so that it was different enough. It's bizarre to me. I haven't read (sometimes I feel like I say this so much in comments and posts that I wonderwhat it is I do read!)Never Let Me G yet but it's on my shelf so hopefully I'll get to it soon. I think Ishiguro's books are beautifully written and so I'd rather read his book than the Unit. Not to mention your problem with this book's ending bothers me because I really hate it when endings stink!

I'm sorry this book didn't work for you in many ways, Heather. We can't like them all, I guess, but it's always disappointing to dislike a book (for me anyway!)

Love your husband's comment!

Anita said...

One I can pass on. You tell my why so very well. Thanks.

Stacy at A Novel Source said...

Another blogger had recommended this book to me over a year ago but i still have not gotten around to reading it. i'm glad i read your review FIRST! I would have thrown the book across the room if i had read it and hated the ending - that stinks! thank you for sharing your thoughts - i'll pick up never let me go instead.

Steph said...

It's so interesting to read your thoughts and reactions here, because I feel like I felt quite differently from you! I did not really enjoy NLMG, and while I wouldn't say that this book blew me away, I did prefer it and felt that it was quite different from NLMG in a few important ways. I felt like NLMG relies a lot on people not entirely knowing what is going on for much of the book, whereas this one laid its cards on the table from the get-go. Also, unlike in NLMG where people were being made for the purpose of ultimately being sacrificed, in the case of The Unit, people only face that fate should they not contribute to society in some other way. I'm not saying that position is correct, but I did think that was an important point - to some extent, people here have agreed that this system is acceptable and those going to The Unit have chosen that path (one could argue). Overall, I felt this novel was less manipulative and more thought provoking than NLMG, but I know others who have felt as you did.

But yes to the rather boring/plodding beginning! The first two parts of the book were merely setting the scene and really could have been tightened.

Jules said...

I liked the book, some aspects were interesting and the author set up a good, creepy world, but I had my frustrations with the book as well - especially the ending.

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