Excerpt from The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Unknown Terrorist

A Novel

by Richard Flanagan

The Unknown Terrorist
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  • First Published:
    May 2007, 336 pages
    Jan 2008, 336 pages

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She suspected her looks didn’t amount to much and did not trust the attention she felt they brought. She did not understand that the attention arose from something else, and that everything that she was—her slow movements, her smile, the way she engaged with people—was what attracted others even more than her looks. But she was twenty-six, pretending to be twenty-two, and looks mattered. She had an open, oval face. It was exactly the wrong face for our age.

If the Doll’s looks were exotic, her origins were everyday. She was a westie, though from which particular suburb no one knew. She was always going to leave the west, but she was surprised as a young woman how little she felt she had left behind. It wasn’t that she had no direction home, but that she had little sense she had ever had a home. The Doll had long ago determined that her early life would mean little to her, and she was of the fixed opinion that origins and explanations were not to be hers.

“I grew up like a cat,my friend,” she once told Jodie, who was no friend at all. “My family had no hand in it. You know any cats with an interest in family history?”

Of course, her father came from somewhere, and her mother from somewhere else, and their parents in turn must have had lives of some interest, lived in places and times that might even to our eyes seem exotic, the stuff of mini-series and fat novels discounted at Big W over Christmas; and the further one went back, no doubt the more intriguing it would all become: there might be notorious artists or famous criminals, failed businessmen or successful charlatans, people of variety and interest, of charm and horror. But if this were so, the Doll’s parents knew little of it and had interest in none of it.The pattern and passing of lives before and after them meant no more than the ebb and flow of traffic on the freeway.

Their world was one of suburban verities, their world was that of today: the house, the job, the possessions and the cars, the friends and the renovations, the resort holidays and the latest gadgets—digital cameras, home cinemas, a new pool.The past was a garbage bin of outdated appliances: the foot spa; the turbo oven; the doughnut maker and the record player, the SLR and the VCR and the George Foreman grill. The past was an embarrassment of distressing colours and styles about which to laugh: Mullet haircuts and padded shoulders, top perms and kettle barbecues. Only this week’s catalogue was good and worth getting, no deposit and twenty-four months to pay. Their lives were empty, their lives they regarded as good. The Doll’s strongest memories were of television soaps.

She had watched Neighbours and Home and Away; she had been more upset at the age of eight by Daphne Lawrence dying than when her mother had split from her father the previous year, taking her two younger brothers with her to Hervey Bay to live with a fibreglass swimming pool installer called Ray. Then the Doll hadn’t known what was expected of her, or what was meant by such things; but Ramsay Street and Summer Bay made it clear: you cried and you laughed, you went on and on.

She watched music videos with the girls all beautiful and the men all fat and aggressive; the girls outshone the men, the way she saw it, with their looks and their dancing and the way they mostly didn’t bother saying anything while the men mouthed off—nothing could have prepared her better for pole dancing. She claimed that the one enduring memory she had of her mother before she ran off was of a bad trompe l’oeil painting she had done on the Venetian blinds of their suburban lounge room. It was a picture of a window opening onto the sight of Bali’s Kuta Beach, where, on holiday, she had first met Ray. For a time in her teens, she visited her mother in Hervey Bay occasionally. By then Ray had long gone, and her mother talked only of her two sons, two fat boys who dressed like two fat rappers, said Yo a lot and greeted each other American style, rubbing fist knuckles; it was as if the Doll were a new and not overly interesting neighbour across the street. Her mother’s life was another soap opera but a not particularly good one; a song cycle of drug problems, police visits, prolapses, and new partners. The visits to her mother oppressed the Doll. She went out of duty, and at some point duty seemed not much of a reason and she stopped going. When, a few years later, she heard her mother had been killed in a pile-up on the Hume Highway she was sad, but not overly. It felt more like the confirmation of a long-standing absence than the beginning of one.

Excerpted from The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan © 2007 by Richard Flanagan. Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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