Friday, June 26, 2009

Feminist Book Club: "The Unit"  

I was sent a wonderful and thought-provoking woman-centric book, which I read in about a week, and now I want to suggest it to all of you. The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist, is a chilling futuristic picture of what could really take place in any country (though the book comes from Sweden) at any time in the future.

The Unit is the story of a world in which infertile and single women and men have little worth. At age 50 for women, and 60 for men, those who are childless, without a partner, and/or without a job title that's deemed "important enough" are whisked away to what emulates a retirement community, but perhaps one that you would see in a dream. Everyone gets their own apartment and full access to restaurants, a gym complete with swimming pool, a library, a theatre, an art gallery, a hospital, shops where everything is free, and a garden where it's perpetually sunny. Oh. But they're required to undergo any and all medical and/or psychological testing that is thrust upon them, and they must donate their organs, one by one, to those who are younger and more valuable to society, until they make their "final donation." Those who live in the Unit (the Second Reserve Bank for Biological Material) are called "dispensable" - the word itself is chilling enough.

The story centers around a woman named Dorrit Weger.
Dorrit proved to be somewhat of a confusing character to me. She was raised by a feminist mother, yet she grew up to be a woman who enjoys being dominated in the bedroom, and has fantasies of cooking in the kitchen while her masculine partner chops wood outside. In the Unit, she falls in love with a man, but their partnering cannot remove them from the Unit - once you're in, you're in.

Despite Dorrit's strangely antifeminist behavior, the story has many feminist themes. For one thing, lesbian relationships happen on more than one occasion, and they are discussed very nonchalantly, as if women dating other women is no big deal (which it shouldn't be). Also, the majority of the main characters are women, and once characters experience loss of their male partners, the group of women become tighter than ever, relying on the powerful bond of female friendship to get through it all. Dorrit also continuously feels compelled to comfort the new arrivals and she often takes them under her wing, proving that you don't have to have children to take on a motherly role.

Mostly, this novel is about choices women have to make (do I want a career, a family, or independence?) and about those choices being restricted. Women in this novel cannot choose to continue their careers past the age of 50 unless they hold certain job titles, nor can they choose total independence, because without a partner and/or a child, they must be confined to the Unit, where their bodies become property of the government for the little time they have left.

In the end, Dorrit has an extremely important choice to make, and I debated with myself endlessly over whether or not she made the right one. Has anyone read this? If so, what did you think? For anyone who hasn't had the pleasure, if you happen to pick it up (and I highly recommend you do) shoot me an e-mail after you read it so that we can chat :)

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5 comments: to “ Feminist Book Club: "The Unit"

  • June 27, 2009 at 5:19 AM  

    It's an interesting idea for a story. Rather like a flip side of The Handmaid's Tale (Margaret Atwood) premise in which infertility becomes the norm except for a tiny few. In that scenario it is a woman's fertility that becomes their shackles. Women who can still have children are kept as child-producing units and that is their sole worth.

    Both draw on child-production is being the true value of a woman but the power is reversed.

    Childless women in all societies have remained to be useful to the community (creche services, food production) and is one theory behind why humans have a menopause (that is, to live even after fertility has passed) so childless women are far from useless ad unvalued. If anything, I think it is men who should (or do) live in fear of being deemed obsolete or at least surplus to requirements as we do not need them to make up 50% of the population. Their existence in great numbers could be seen as an indulgence on our part. That'd be an interesting feminist book to write.

  • June 27, 2009 at 5:22 AM  

    um, rereading my comment above I realised it sounds like I actually believe and agree that men are surplus to requirements and we can cull them to manageable number for our convenience. That is not what I think. It's just if I were a 'MENinist' (?) writer that'd be a dystopian novel I'd write.

  • June 27, 2009 at 5:06 PM  

    Right! I love The Handmaid's Tale :D

  • July 1, 2009 at 12:50 PM  

    I bought it for my Kindle! Might be a while until I get to it, though.

  • August 10, 2010 at 2:43 AM  

    I am reading the book now (about half way through). It is a creepy and fascinating read. I can't figure out whether it's a "feminist" book or not. Some of the themes seem to be, but then I also have vague unease about various aspects of the novel. It is clearly a crazy world in which people are dispensible because they don't have children. It is also a world in which sexual harrassment is outlawed. The narrator may not be reliable...but I fail to see the connection between eliminating gender roles and punishing people who don't fit them (by becoming parents). While intimate relationships between women are discussed in 2 instances, I don't think that it is ever acknowledged that the society in which they live is also anti-gay. Gay couples, male or female, cannot reproduce without assitance. Thus gays and lesbians would all be "dispensible." It's as if they are invisible.