Book Reviews

The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan — a nation duped

Cover of The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

Richard Flanagan’s The Unknown Terrorist shows a side to Australia that I hadn’t expected.

The warm and welcoming Aussies as portrayed in films (and frequently found behind the bar in UK pubs) is nowhere to be seen. Gone too is their generally laid back, easy going attitude to life. In its place we find a population hostile towards “outsiders” and easily whipped up into xenophobia when they feel the Australian way of life is threatened.

They won’t integrate you know.

The target of hostility in the novel is a 26-year-old pole dancer who gets swept up in the hysteria that ensues after bombs are discovered at the Sydney’s Olympic stadium.

Gina Davies — stage name “The Doll” — dreams of the apartment she will buy with the lavish tips from the property developers, mining executives and entrepreneurs who frequent a upmarket Sydney night club. She obsessively counts the money she’s accumulated, ritually covering her naked body with bank notes “overlapping each note like fish scales.”

Those dreams come to an abrupt end after a cocaine-fuelled fling with Tariq, a handsome computer programmer she met on the beach. The following day he is named as the prime suspect behind the unexploded bombs. Gina is stunned when all the TV news channels begin broadcasting security camera images of her entering Tariq’s apartment — and identify her as his accomplice.

From this point, The Unknown Terrorist is devoted to the search for these suspects and the ensuing media frenzy with every news outlet keen to be the first to identity the woman they nickname “The Black Widow”.

The manhunt gives the novel the flavour of a thriller — an unusual choice of genre for Flanagan — that speeds along rapidly and cinematically to a dramatic conclusion.

Yet this thriller element is not the main focus. Flanagan’s underlying theme deals with the way politicians and the media manipulate the truth to serve their own purposes.

Broadcast journalist come television celebrity Richard Cody  is one step ahead of the media pack having recognised Gina as the dancer who insulted him one night at the club. He plans a media coup that will bolster his fading career— a prime-time special in which he will expose “The Doll” as the dangerous “unknown terrorist.” He’s given a helping hand by an insider within the Australian special intelligence service, a man for whom conjecture and hints substitute for the truth.

Together they connive to create fear in the population that they too are targets for the kind of terrorism attacks experienced in the USA. The fact that Gina is innocent is irrelevant — she’s just a nobody who fits the national security narrative the authorities want people to believe.

Sure, she’s not Muslim …. Sure, she’s Australian. But she’s a loser and she wants to settle scores and prove something, and she fell in with the wrong crowd who have shown her how to get back at the world.

If this was my first encounter with Richard Flanagan’s work I wouldn’t be champing at the bit to read any more. The Unknown Terrorist is too heavy handed with its messaging about media manipulation and political maneuvering and doesn’t have anything really fresh to say about those issues.

The book also relies too much on stereotypes. A TV journalist without a conscience. An intelligence operative acting as puppet master. A troubled police officer who believes in the truth. A bearded man in Arabic dress. And a stripper who has a late epiphany that everything in life is a deception. It’s hard to feel affinity for any of them.

I missed the complexity and multi dimensional characters of the two other novels by Richard Flanagan’s that I’ve read: The Sound of One Hand Clapping and his Booker-prize winner The Narrow Road To The Deep North. From his back catalogue it doesn’t appear as if he ever attempted the thriller genre again which is a relief because I own five more of his novels and would be disappointed if they were on a par with The Unknown Terrorist.


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

19 thoughts on “The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan — a nation duped

  • I must admit, I wasn’t particularly keen to see out any more of Flanagan’s work after my first experience of his writing either (The Narrow Road To The Deep North). I must say, this one sounds startlingly accurate premise-wise – we have BIG problems with xenophobic witch-hunts here in Australia – but it sounds like he hasn’t quite landed it. I might check it out if I stumble across a Little Free Library copy or something.

    • I did enjoy Narrow Road but rated Sound of One Hand Clapping higher so maybe you could give that one a chance.
      I suspect you’d find xenophobia in many countries right now – it’s certainly evident in Germany for example.

  • I am not a Flanagan fan. And I would say that he often resorts to action when he runs out of things to say, eg the ridiculous drive through bushfire in The Long Road. But I’ll stop there.

    • I’ve yet to read that one – I’ll let you know when I get to it I have the same reaction

  • hello, I completed reading one of the e-books received last year, titled: A Tragic Act by Kate P. Adams, and one of the characters’ names is Richard when I viewed this email last evening, I immediately thought of that but I did not post a comment. This happens too often and it’s weird only to me. A Tragic Act is Shakespearean in style and of course, they would have a character name Richard but the play enacted in the book was Romeo and Juliette…and their director who argued with the cast members got bumped off, and guess who did it? Saying hello is all, take care!

  • Forewarned is forearmed, thanks! I hate stereotypes in fiction who are there to be pawns moved around the board, especially when a heavy-handed message is the endgame.

    • I was particularly sensitive to the way the journalist was presented given my former career.

      • That must’ve somewhat galling. Rather like teachers accused of putting their feet up at 3.30 and swanning around doing nothing for 13 weeks every year…

        • Hang on a minute are you trying to tell me that isn’t what teachers do????? Blimey, now you’ve completely bowled me over with that 🙂 LOL

        • Okay, maybe I used to put my feet up at 4 o’clock, I admit, you don’t need to put me in a headlock… 😁

        • I bet you just did that as a break before knuckling down to some marking

  • Quite a relief not to have to count yet another book as a must-read. A shame though, because someone like Flanagan could have made this topical theme something really memorable and thought-provoking. Ah well …

    • Indeed, it could have been a stronger novel. Though Flanagan is still far superior to many other authors….

  • Yes, I agree 100%.
    His heart was in the right place: he was writing the kind of populist fiction that the majority of people read, in order to expose what was happening. It was a political novel with a political purpose.
    But for those of us who love Flanagan’s sublime, complex, intelligent novels, it was a rude shock. Like you, I always hope that it is not the first Flanagan that a reader encounters!

    • I wonder whether its also suffered because the topic is now so common place

      • Well, yes, there’s that too. Plus, not that I’m really in a position to judge since I don’t read thrillers, it doesn’t seem like a very good thriller to me.

        • I don’t read many of them either but I’d put this one into the “low volume thrills” category.

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