Dystopian literature is not my usual thing. In fact, I generally put any and all dystopian novels gingerly back on the shelf at the bookstore no matter how appealing the cover or title is or how many recommendations I hear. Perhaps I am just practicing head in the sand avoidance, not wanting to think about how our current society could easily devolve into a society like the ones portrayed by imaginative authors in these often very disturbing worlds. So you'll know just how much I was looking forward to reading this particular book. And I wouldn't have read it had I not been given it to read for a committee on which I served.
But the committee obigated me to give it a fair shake (even if I waited almost to the end of my reading list for them to pick it up, choosing to read books I thought I'd enjoy more first). And I won't make you wait until the end of the review to tell you that I am incredibly grateful that this came across my desk as it did, obligating me to read this powerful, amazing, and completely worthwhile novel. It stretched my assumptions and gripped my attention. It was indeed a "Wow!" reading experience that left me thinking about it for a good long time afterwards.
Dorrit Weger is turning fifty. What this means for a childless unmarried writer is that she will have no option but to move into the Second Reserve Bank Unit for biological material. In short, the state will now feed, clothe, and entertain her. They will keep her healthy. The price for this? She must be willing to donate body parts and participate in scientific studies that benefit the "productive" members of society. There will come a time when she is asked to make a "final donation," one that costs her her life. And she has no choice but to comply with this directive no matter how horrifying it seems to her.
Once the initial disgust has worn off though, Dorrit settles into the Unit, making friends, volunteering for non-invasive studies, and even falling in love. The subtle horror of her fellow inmates being farmed for organs never quite leaves though, running through even the mundanity of daily life. People disappear with or without warning to make their final donations. Scientific studies go wrong and the subjects are left permanently damaged (but only for a brief time as they almost immediately then make their final donation).
But if the manufactured idyllic life in the Unit is a facade, the human relationships and connections between the characters are strong and real. And it is in creating these characters who struggle and philosophize and love and challenge despite their certain fate that Holmqvist has excelled. The society these characters must exist within does force the reader to examine some of the questions in our own society. Who is a productive member of society? Who makes that determination? Should we acquiese without question for the greater good of the whole? What kind of society are we creating? And what do we value above all?
The twist of fate whereby Dorrit has the means to save herself is masterful. And the path that she ultimately chooses doesn't really answer the questions that the story raises. But I don't think we're meant to find answers. We are meant to reflect on the questions. And I certainly did that. It was hard to start another book after this one because it went on percolating in my brain for so long. Not one I would ever have read on my own, I can't really explain why I think everyone should read it. But everyone should. Riveting, troubling, exquisite, and addictive, this is a book that challenges and rewards. It is simply put, a must read.
Thanks to the Other Press for sending me a copy to review even if I initially wrinkled my nose. Teach me to prejudge a book!