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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Print Excerpt

At the beach she went swimming, lay on the sand, let herself fill with sun. She took pleasure in feeling her breasts spreading in the towelling beneath which the sand firmed; in smelling suntan oil and wet sand and air salty from the sea and acrid from the outfall sewage frothing to a latte on distant points. As she turned her head sideways, one ear on the beach, one open to the sky, the roar of the waves became louder, the squeals of children a floating accompaniment that began to disappear as she lost her body and mind in the regular swoop and wash of the waves; it was a dream, a dream in which life was worth living after all.

Faraway, she could see a cloud, the only one in the sky. It looked like . . . but it didn’t really look like anything, just a slow-moving cloud, beautiful and alone. It kept changing, like the world, and, like the world, it was indescribable. A nearby radio ran the same news it always seemed to run and its repetition of distant horror and local mundanity was calmly reassuring. More bombings in Baghdad, more water restrictions and more bushfires; another threat to attack Sydney on another al-Qa’ida website and another sportsman in another sex scandal, a late unconfirmed report that three unexploded bombs had been discovered at Sydney’s Homebush Olympic stadium and the heatwave was set to go on, continuing to set record highs, while here at the beach,waves rolled in, crashed, and rolled out again, taking all this irrelevant noise with them, as they always had, as they always would. The radio said:“Live the dream!”

And wasn’t that just what she was doing?

There was nothing on earth she wanted at that moment, nothing she felt denied her that she wished to have, no ambition she felt unfulfilled. She desired neither friends nor a man, not money nor clothes nor to be other than who she was. The bad she had known seemed not important. Her body felt neither skinny nor fat, neither weary nor spent, nor excited, nor in need of exercise. She was not beautiful or ugly, but felt her body existed only to receive the gift of this life, and everything at that moment seemed good. It was enough to hear the waves crash and roll, to pour sand from one hand to the other and look at the falling grains. The radio said: “Congratulations, Australia! We want to thank you with a knockdown sale on our bathroom accessories!”

She dozed, awoke, watched the beautiful surfies in their long boardies and the clubbies in their budgie smugglers, the gays with their tight bods, the girls with their muffin tops poking out proud as can be, the old men with tea bag bellies strutting, and the old women with bodies like weary pavs sagging in the heat, just sitting, watching; breasts and arses and wedding tackle all hanging in such wild disarray and the sun shining like there’s no tomorrow and over it all the waves returning the world to some other, better, larger rhythm— who couldn’t feel happy as a bird and, as her friend Wilder would say, as free as a fart with all this?

And everything about the beach at that moment blended into something that seemed delightful and comforting, and the name the Doll gave it all was Sydney, and she felt she understood why many had come to love it so.

She was dozing when her phone rang. It was Wilder, saying she and Max were at Bondi, that it was a beautiful day, and why didn’t the Doll come and join them for a swim? “It could take me a while,” the Doll said, standing, picking up her towel and bag, and scanning the beach, “what with the traffic and all.”

She began walking through the throngs of people and spotted the five-year-old Max digging a hole less than a hundred metres away, his mother Wilder lying next to him, majestic and brazen as ever, dark brown and topless. The Doll rang Wilder back and asked her exactly where she was on the beach. As Wilder began issuing directions, the Doll snuck around behind her and continued talking, until her mouth was right up next to Wilder’s mobile phone.Wilder, who was in a splendid mood, turned, looked up with her unforgettable face and shrieked with delight. Max swung around in his hole and, on seeing the Doll, scrambled out and threw himself into her arms.

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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