Book Review: Readings

Richard Flanagan


The Unknown Terrorist

by Richard Flanagan

Grove, 336 pp., $24

Australia might be one of the least-understood nations. In The Unknown Terrorist, novelist Richard Flanagan steps beyond the ad-friendly sands of Bondi Beach and onto the grimy, corrupt streets of Sydney's Kings Cross red-light district. He chronicles the last four days of the Doll, a stripper working in a low-end bar and $300 away from buying herself out of the life. Her exotic looks have always been a selling point but soon become her doom. After run-ins with two men – one a tabloid journalist out for a lurid story, another a seemingly innocent computer programmer – she becomes the target for a terrorism investigation that soon spirals into a witch hunt.

Flanagan deals with the interface of race and class in Australia using brutality the same way Tom Wolfe used humor in The Bonfire of the Vanities to deal with it in America. What he finds is a stream of bigotry, apathy, and insecurity flowing as broad through the laissez-faire street world of the Doll as it does among the insular snobs at media parties and the back rooms of police stations. His Australia is a nation on edge, dealing slowly and painfully with a history of institutionalized racism, where imported drugs and sex slaves are a more pressing concern than terrorism. But to Flanagan, even more worrying is the way all three are ignored or manipulated by police, media, government, and the average Australian.

The Unknown Terrorist isn't flawless. Flanagan lets internal monologues spell out too much for the reader, and that same purple prose leads to some skimmable sex scenes. It's also unapologetically Australian. But Flanagan hits hardest when he uses the clear, brusque tone of the Ocker – the average Aussie on the street. He writes against a background of draconian anti-terror laws passed in 2005 and the Bali bar bombings and shows how another nation has fallen into a post-9/11 state of panic. While it may be written as a wake-up call for Australia, it's also an alarming primer on the paranoia that is sweeping the world.

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The Unknown Terrorist, Richard Flanagan, Grove

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