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Another Kind of Terror
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.