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on 15 April 2007
Richard Flanagan's new novel (released in Australia in December 2006) is about terrorism. Not the kind that involves suicide bombings and religious fervour; the kind that involves mass paranoia and the abuse of power. The second kind is the more insidious.

The unknown terrorist of the title is Gina Davies, a young woman from the suburbs, pretty much alone in the world and focused entirely on achieving material dreams. She's a stripper and pole dancer, a pill-popper and, on the whole, rather a shallow person. Not the kind of character you'd normally feel for as a reader. Yet Flanagan succeeds in making us sympathise with her completely, to feel outrage and pity for the monumental injustice she suffers at the hands of the authorities, the media and the society she inhabits.

A chance encounter and a one-night stand with a suspected terrorist (who, as it turns out, probably isn't a terrorist after all) transforms the rather naive Gina into public enemy number one. Frightened, confused and mistrustful of authority, she becomes a fugitive. Fuelled by hysterical media coverage, Gina is hunted down as a dangerous home-grown terrorist. The ending is not happy.

Certainly, The Unknown Terrorist is emotionally gripping. As we follow Gina's mental and physical unravelling, it's very hard to remain detached. It's hard because it's all so absurd. Surely no sane society could put two and two together and get five in such a disastrous, unjust way.

Of course, it's a highly political novel, and as such, its purpose is to arouse, to question, to jolt. It succeeds handsomely in this regard. It's also guilty of being melodramatic at times, and some strands of the storyline are a little too contrived. However, judging a political novel purely on its technical merit would be to miss the point completely. Flanagan has set out to make a powerful statement and has succeeded.

I hope lots of people read it and talk about it. I hope someone makes a film of it. It's not an uplifting book by any means - it's pessimistic and downright depressing, in fact. But it's an important book for our times, such as they are.
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on 14 August 2008
"The Unknown Terrorist" is Richard Flanagan's so far best book, I would say. It is so far also the only book I have read, which manages to convey a real point in the aftermath of 9/11, without working superficial tears or shallow points. His point here is to show how manipulative media and politics are, how easy people are manipulated, how little someone's rights count and how easy it is to misuse well-staged mass hysteria for personal benefit.
The main hero of this book is the pole (or lap-) dancer Gina Davies, shortly called "The Doll" throughout this book. The Doll's main interest is making enough money by stripping and dancing at the "Chairman's Lounge", in order to change her life. Her biggest mistake is not the one-night stand she has with Tariq, but the rejection of Richard Cody, the media star. When three bombs are found in backpacks, Tariq is far too quickly and easily identified by media as the wanted terrorist. Footage from the supervisory-cams of Tariqs appartment building showing him with Gina, gives Richard Cody the chance to identify Gina and to misuse her for personal advantage as "The Unknown Terrorist". I will not reveal more of the story here.
Richard Flanagans writing is brilliant (even superior to his "Death of a River Guide"), he never lost my attention at any moment. A thrilling book, great literature, beating any thriller by it's writing and it's message, which leaves you stunned and with the shocking thought, that by virtue of some coincidence, this could happen to each and every single one of us. A book, which pleads for understanding rather than prejudice.
One of my personal books of the year!
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Just what is a "terrorist"? How does one identify such a person? How many terrorist threats are valid and how many contrivances? Richard Flanagan examines the logic behind the terrorist designation so easily bandied about by governments and a subservient media. He accomplishes this through a narrative with many unexpected twists and compelling nuances. Far more than the thriller this book might seem from its title, Flanagan has given us a glaring social statement. It's one we must all give our attention.

Flanagan's message is conveyed by Gina Davies, pole dancer in Sydney's inner city. Well depicted by the author, Gina - a name few know her by - has many identities. Her manager has promoted her beauty and skills under a variety of pseudonyms. How these appellations reach and influence the public is but one of Flanagan's less subtle nuances. Spending a night with a man who rescued her friend's son from Bondi Beach's treacherous surf, Gina - known here as "Doll" is dismayed to learn Tariq is a terrorist - a terrorist suspect, anyway. Worse, she's been tabbed as his partner. Television journalist Richard Cody uses Doll to save his job by turning her into "the unknown terrorist". He urges the Australian public to fear her and the authorities to capture her. Doll's reaction is to flee or hide instead of confronting her accusers. The forces arrayed against her seem too formidable to counter directly. Before long her every move conveys the image of a hooked fish. No manner of twists and turns will shake the hook. Indeed, every dodge and leap only seems to set the barb more firmly.

Flanagan's cast of characters is an indication of his writing skills. Each portrayal is true to life - any embellishment would detract from the tale. The characters are the story's threads, laid down individually and seemingly randomly at the beginning. As their actions form the narrative plot, those "people threads" begin to draw together. Interactions bring unsuspected coherence as the account takes form. As if this story wasn't timely enough, the anguish of Sydney's populace at coming to grips with the idea of a "home-grown" terrorist strikes yet another chord in light of the London bombings of 2005. Could this be repeated in Australia? Or elsewhere?

Doll's attempts to evade the authorities only seem to tighten the noose of their quest to find her. As she dodges and slips from place to place, we're given her background and the lives of those who seek her. This might seem a heavy burden for readers, but Flanagan keeps his characters constrained. He limits his backgrounds to what's pertinent to this story. Since it is the characters building the plot, instead of vice versa, Flanagan's technique proves a credit to his skills. Outlandish as some of the story developments might seem, nothing here is implausible. In today's world, how could they be otherwise? [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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The Unknown Terrorist is a timely novel. It pokes at the underbelly of Sydney society featuring variously a pole dancer called The Doll; a TV producer; a possibly corrupt policeman; a dodgy intelligence officer; a man who might be a terrorist; and a woman called Wilder.

The story is about being in the wrong place at the wrong time; about media hysteria; about the senselessness of Australia’s anti-terrorist legislation; about the dangers within the sex industry; and ultimately about prejudice. Without giving too much of the game away, The Doll is mistaken for a terrorist – the Unknown Terrorist of the title. But unlike many of the novels where the innocent suspect is an angel as pure as the driven snow, The Doll is at least a co-contributor to her own misfortune. Pretty much everything she does compounds the suspicion levelled against her; she takes terrible decisions. She feels real, fallible, complex.

The novel as a whole is complex, operating on a number of different levels; part thriller; part political comment; part personal/emotional. Richard Flanagan tells a compelling story; the detail is lurid and exaggerated, but the novel is still compelling. In the future, when people ask what was Australia like in 2006, they could do worse than read The Unknown Terrorist. It defines the time.

Kindle readers should be aware that the text is not broken up by chapters; does not allow changes of font or font size; and appears to be much shorter than it really is.
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on 4 October 2008
A not particularly likeable Gina Davies is a pole dancer living in her confused world. She has a one-night stand with Tariq, who is later assumed to be a terrorist. She is then found to be guilty by association and becomes the target of a massive police hunt.

This is a very different and sad book with some powerful messages. It speaks to the dangers of stereotyping as well as the overwhelming power of the Fourth Estate. It is also a well-written novel which provides good insights into elements of life in Sydney and Australia.

It is not without flaws, however. The story is held together by some coincidences and then there is the issue which I believe plagues a lot of crime novels - there is a clear and appropriate time for Gina to go to the police to explain all, but she doesn't. But I guess if authors didn't have the licence to play it out this way, the world would be short of a great number of crime novels!

In short, this book is not fault-free, but it is one you're unlikely to forget.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 September 2013
The Unknown Terrorist is the fourth novel by Australian author, Richard Flanagan. After a night of passion with an attractive young stranger, Gina Davies wakes to everyone's worst nightmare: she finds she has become a terror suspect. Within the space of three days, her life goes from one of happiness, of an optimistic future, to the surreality of being a fugitive with nothing. All it took was a bit of post-9/11 hysteria, some unexploded bombs in backpacks, a journalist's career on a downhill slide, some sagging government approval ratings and a snub. For Sydneysiders, Flanagan's characters feel familiar, their dialogue is genuine and the whole series of events has a completely plausible and a frighteningly authentic feel, even as they hurtle towards their tragic conclusion. As Flanagan demonstrates how easily a set of circumstances can condemn an innocent, he also shows the power of the media and fear-mongering. On terrorism, his main character muses: "...she had the odd idea that the terrorism question had become a fad, like body piercing or flares; a fashion that had come and would go like this season's colours." This powerful read is fittingly dedicated to David Hicks.
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on 18 January 2016
Richard Flanagan’s novel isn't so much about a terrorist or terrorism but about the lengths to which politicians and police, fully abetted by mainstream media can build mass hysteria out of thin air. Gina Davies, "the Doll", a young, independent woman from the suburbs trying to make her way in an unforgiving city by pole dancing for a living, is not the kind of character that generates sympathy in readers. But over a period of several days she becomes mired and helpless as the forces of legitimised corruption close in, and it’s difficult not to be swept up in her hopelessness.

The novel prompts readers to reflect on the extent of collusion between police, politicians and media, the extent to which each depends on the other, and what issues and stories are mere media wind and bull versus genuine causes of public concern. The action, set in Sydney and its surrounding inner suburbs, invokes a clamouring heat and sweatiness to the interior scenes that emphasises the Doll’s claustrophobic situation. It builds to a climax that is bitterly sad and inevitable.
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on 27 July 2015
Ever felt powerless, disenfranchised, confused and/or disgusted by a class-based political consensus that bears no relation to the ugly world you live in? Then read The Unknown Terrorist. Flanagan knows you, gets you, chronicles you. This is not a novel about acts of terrorism, it is a novel about debilitating every day terrorism.
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on 10 March 2015
Really perplexed at how this book has been embraced by the media, and also by how much it echoes the storyline of Heinrich Böll's novella The Lost Honour of Katharina Blum published in 1974!!
I found the writer's voice cynical and shallow.
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on 31 August 2013
A fierce sun beats down on Sydney - people sweat and stink by day and night, corruption infects the state and the media and the police, beggars rot on the sidewalk, Mardi Gras shimmers on a tide of waste and body fluids. Fear stalks the city - fear of the Islamist terrorist who will blow the Aussie dream. Bombs found in Homebush may have been left there by the state to feed the fear. A drug dealer is the perfect scapegoat. Sydney fixes on a lapdancer who had a one-night stand with him. The search is on for the home grown terrorist, Gina Davies or "Doll", the dancer. Paranoid with fear she scrambles round the metropolis as her blurred image stares down from every giant screen. Flanagan derides the corruption and meanness of this country, capturing an ugliness hidden in the promise a new, better life down under.
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