And yet one of the most jarring elements of the book is the extent to which all the residents not only accept but affirm their own status. “All this luxury! How much is all this costing the taxpayer?” Dorrit’s new friend Elsa remarks, aghast, when she sees the well-appointed exercise facilities. Dorrit reiterates over and over again that she lives in a democracy, where anyone has the right to express any opinion they want to. Though the idea for “biological reserve units” was first proposed by a fringe political party, she recalls, it soon “slipped into the manifestos of some of the bigger and more established parties,” and was ultimately passed by referendum. Holmqvist’s dystopia doesn’t emerge from autocracy but from widely held beliefs about the necessity of procreation, taken to an extreme.
Holmqvist wrote The Unit, she explains in an author’s note, after she turned 45, when it occurred to her that she was “completely dispensable,” and that her death would leave “no tangible empty space behind me that needed to be filled.” As a childless woman in a creative profession, she felt compelled to write about “how it felt to be regarded as a selfish, spoiled oddball who makes no contribution to any kind of growth.” The novel, first published in English in 2009, has been recently reissued, presumably to capitalize on the feverish interest in reproductive dystopias sparked by Hulu’s Emmy-nominated adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale. But The Unit feels like an inversion of Margaret Atwood’s Gilead, where fertile women are forcibly impregnated under biblical sanction. Here, the justification for horror—the extraction of human tissue from the childfree—is secular, a capitalist democracy demanding its toll.
Holmqvist has a particular gift for pacing, withholding full explanation from the reader for as long as possible but proffering unsettling details from the very first page. Dorrit’s clean, light apartment is monitored in its entirety by cameras. Before the SUV arrives, she explains, she considered killing herself, but didn’t have the courage. There are no windows anywhere in the unit, which appears to exist inside some kind of dome. Internet use is allowed only under supervision, and when a five-course Italian meal is served for dinner, with Parma ham, melon, and panna cotta, “only the wine was missing.”
On her first night in the facility, Dorrit meets Majken, an artist who’s lived there for four years, and who’s donated “eggs for stem-cell research, one kidney, and the auditory bone from her right ear.” Soon, Majken explains, she’ll go in to donate her pancreas “to a student nurse with four kids. So I guess this will be my last welcome party.” Majken’s matter-of-fact tone and the general strangeness of her new situation prompts Dorrit to have a panic attack, and her three new friends comfort her. And as the novel progresses, the pattern continues, with Dorrit acclimatizing to the unit and comforting new residents in turn, just as she was soothed on her first day.