Book review: The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy

The-unit The Unit

By Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy

Other Press  

The Unit is the first novel by Ninni Holmqvist, a translator who has previously published three collections of short stories. It is superb: assured, measured, controlled, human and written in that deceptively simple, easy-reading style that draws the reader into very dark depths without consciously being aware of the direction.

This is not a novel that many would term ‘crime fiction’: the main ‘crime’ being on the part of the state. The book has been defined as ‘science fiction’, but it isn’t that either. The events take place in some slightly futuristic or alternative reality, but if the reader accepts these terms of engagement, the novel is an Orwellian story about people, events and feelings, containing no artificial tricksiness and having far more in common with Karin Fossum than with Isaac Asimov.

The bare bones of the plot are straightforward. Dorrit, a single woman aged about 50, finds herself  institutionalised – voluntarily but in a sinister fashion. The titular unit is a pleasant place in which to live, with landscaped gardens, library, art gallery and many other facilities, although all the residents are under constant surveillance. 

Although it isn’t hard to guess the purpose of the unit, the way in which the nightmare gradually unfolds is brilliantly told. There are no dramatics or exciting set-pieces, and because we see everything from the point of view of the residents rather than the staff, and hence in human and emotional terms, the impact of the fate of Dorrit’s circle of friends is poignant.

Like all good novels, there are layers of allegory. The people who live in the unit are childless, therefore in their previous lives have tended to devote their energies towards creative, intellectual pursuits. The unit is therefore full of authors, artists, and others who are continuing to contribute constructively to society in the hope that their work will be preserved for the future. There are many understated themes running through the novel – satire, social comment, ethics and so on.

The Unit shares its main elements with all good books. It tells an interesting story; has a good plot with a few twists and turns (especially at the end); contains believable characters; is very well written, superbly translated by Marlaine Delargy, who conveys many subtleties so well; and it haunts long after finishing it. The character of the protagonist, Dorrit, as she reflects on her past life and relationships, misses her dog and decides how to handle the amazing situation in which she finds herself half-way through the book, is particularly compelling. I think that populating a novel with a cast of 50- and 60-something characters without children makes for an interestingly unusual view of human behaviour and society, and the background of benign menace provides a sharp antidote to sentimentality.

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I thank Marlaine Delargy, the translator of this novel, for so kindly sending me a copy of his book. Marlaine has translated books by Asa Larsson and Johan Theorin among many other authors. She has just translated Camilla Ceder's Frozen Moment, which is coming out in the UK this summer, as well as a ghost story by John Ajvide Lindqvist (author of Let the Right One In) for Text Publishing in Australia. Marlaine has delivered Lars Kepler's The Hypnotist to the publisher Blue Door, which will be out in the UK next year, and she is about to start on Johan Theorin's third novel, The Place of Blood, and will be reviewing it for the next issue of Swedish Book Review. Another upcoming translation by Marlaine is Anne Holt's 1222 Above Sea Level – from Maj Sjöwall's Swedish translation of the original Norwegian. Such exciting news, and I'm looking forward to reading each and every one of these books (but possibly not the short story if it has vampires and the like in it).

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Read other reviews of The Unit at:

The Washington Post (which calls the book "unsettling but vibrant").

Words without Borders

Reading group guides

Blue Archipelago reviews ("echoes of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go – though I much preferred this novel")

The Bookbag  ("stunning, if slightly concerning, and it certainly gives a great deal of food for thought".)

See the video trailer for The Unit at YouTube.

8 thoughts on “Book review: The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated by Marlaine Delargy

  1. Maxine – Thanks for this lovely review! I was very eager to find out what you thought of The Unit, and it sounds like a wonderful read. I’m very glad you liked it. Another one for my TBR list…

  2. Great review, must check it out. I am a big Asa Larsson fan. I as wondering if you knew if any more of her books are to be translated and published in the UK. I recently finished The Black Path and really enjoyed it. It is interesting to think that the same person translates alot of authors who I consider a must read such as Anne Holt and Johan Theorin.

  3. Thank you everyone! It is a very good book. Fiona – Asa Larsson has been picked up by Quercus/Maclehose Press, who will be publishing the next in the Rebecka series (the 4th) quite soon- later this year I believe (I think there are 3 more). Unfortunately and in my opinion wrongly, they won’t be translated by the same translator – which is such a pity as the first three Rebecka novels were translated superbly – and the haunting quality of The Black Path so well-captured.

  4. I am really curious to see what English readers make of The Hypnotist. It is a real pageturner, but the ending is pretty far out😀

  5. You are so lucky to be able to read these books long before us ignorant monolinguists, Dorte!

  6. another review I will have to skip for now – I have this book on the TBR pile to read and thought I might squeeze it in soon – above all else it looks so nice and thin.

  7. Bernadette, I have to admit I have also started prioritising the thin ones! This one does not take long to read, for sure.

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