BookBrowse Reviews The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

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The Unknown Terrorist

A Novel

by Richard Flanagan

The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan
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  • First Published:
    May 2007, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Jan 2008, 336 pages

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Chilling, impossible to put down, and all too familiar

From the book jacket: What would you do if you turned on the television and saw you were the most wanted terrorist in the country? Gina Davies is about to find out when, after a night spent with an attractive stranger, she becomes a prime suspect in the investigation of an attempted terrorist attack. Three unexploded bombs at a stadium, one attractive stranger now missing, and five days on the run, she witnesses every truth of her life twisted into a betrayal. The Unknown Terrorist is a relentless tour de force that paints a devastating picture of a contemporary society gone haywire, where the ceaseless drumbeat of terror alert levels, newsbreaks, and fear of the unknown pushes a nation ever closer to the breaking point.

Comment:
The Unknown Terrorist is set against a background of draconian anti-terror laws that were passed in Australia in 2005 following the bombings in Bali, Indonesia (a relatively close neighbor to Australia with which it shares a relationship not dissimilar to that between the USA and Mexico, at least when it comes to tourism). Written as a wake-up call for Australians by an Australian, its story is a powerful morality tale for all of us living in increasingly paranoid nations.

As one reviewer aptly points out, The Unknown Terrorist is less about terrorism than the perception of terrorism; clearly and unequivocally, it takes aim at the climate of fear and those in the media who exploit fear for the purpose of boosting ratings.

Flanagan's choice of heroine, an aspiring-to-be upwardly-mobile pole dancer, is not an immediately sympathetic character, but by the end, most readers will be won over. Gina Davies's stage name is Krystal but her nickname is "the Doll", short for "the Russian Doll" because, according to the owner of the nightclub in which she works, "whoever you thought you knew there was always another different person the next time you met her." Her nickname is aptly symbolic. Externally, she is a blank slate on to which paying customers project their own fantasies and, as the story progresses, the media are able to write their own story. Internally, she is a semblance of a person, hiding a deeply suburban past she cares not to remember, who lives in a rundown apartment but faces the world in designer clothing to disguise her vulnerability, and dreams of the day that she will escape into the world she reads about in magazines.

Following a one-night stand with a man named Tariq, Gina finds herself the chief suspect in a foiled terrorist plot. Although any evidence against her is circumstantial, a media frenzy, led by the cynical and over-the-hill newscaster Richard Cody, builds an ever higher tower of fabrication that systematically strips Gina of all that she believed was true and reliable including, ironically, her own petty prejudices.

Flanagan's Sydney is a soulless, modern city that, apart from some local slang and place names, could be interchanged with any number of other modern cities. Beauty is bought and sold, and public sensibilities are numbed by the relentless pursuit of material aspiration. It is a city of bigotry and apathy, happy to be fed a diet of media and government manipulation.

The Unknown Terrorist is direct and impassioned but not without flaws. Some might feel the book's message is a little too obvious, and most of the characters are representative of a type, and are therefore one-dimensional to the point that it reads like a modern-day fable. In addition, "The Doll's" capacity for interior monologue on some subjects shows an impressive depth of thinking for somebody who misses the obvious in other areas. Nevertheless, The Unknown Terrorist is a fast and gripping cautionary tale which will be appreciated by anyone who has ever questioned the reliability of the media, and a must read eye-opener for anyone who hasn't!

This review is from the May 10, 2007 issue of BookBrowse Recommends. Click here to go to this issue.



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