Richard Flanagan is a well-credentialed author whose past novels have all been shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award as well as picking up a slew of other prizes. The Unknown Terrorist is his first thriller and it makes use of the post-911 worldwide fear of terror attacks as the driving force behind this savagely relevant novel. We are taken on a nightmare ride through a city that has been whipped up into an "alarmed, not alert" frenzy.
Sydney has been hit by a terrorist bomb scare when 3 children's backpacks are found, filled with explosives, near the Homebush Olympic Stadium. Images of New York, Beslan, London and the Sari Club are prominent on the local news as the city is in turmoil over the near miss.
Oblivious to all of this is The Doll, a pole dancer working at a Sydney nightclub whose sole focus is finishing her shift with enough tips to bring her closer towards her goal of earning enough money to put a deposit on her own home. Sure she notices that the terrorist threat has reached her city, but it's not the sort of news that will affect her directly so it hardly registers with her.
The Doll's real name is Gina Davies, but her stage name is Krystal and the name she is known by at the club is short for The Russian Doll, a name that was bestowed upon her by the club's owner.
The Doll spread her legs very slowly and, finally, with a knowing, complicit look that she sealed with a smile, lowered her gaze to her hand that she had begun running between her legs, while all the time thinking of a Louis Vuitton handbag she had seen spectacularly reduced to six hundred dollars. She could buy it tomorrow if the fat suit fell for her. It would make this shitful night worth it.
The night of Sydney's Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras is party time and the Doll is ready to make the most of the night. While watching the parade she meets Tariq, a darkly handsome man with whom she gets swept up with in a wild night of dancing and passion. When she wakes the next morning Tariq has left her alone in his apartment and she leaves without seeing him again.
The next thing she knows she is watching the news on television as they report an unsuccessful raid on a terrorist's apartment that day. But it's not until photos of the terrorist and his female accomplice are displayed that her head starts spinning - one of the photos is of her.
At first she treats it as a bit of a joke, something that can be easily and quickly cleared up by a visit to the local cop shop, but the situation spirals dangerously out of control on the back of some sensationalist journalism and a city that is in the grip of terror that, until now, was foreign to it. Unable to contact Tariq, afraid to return to her apartment and her job, the Doll is cast adrift, a fugitive accused of the most serious of crimes - terrorism.
While life as a pole dancer hasn't exactly been easy for the Doll, she had plans for the future and was almost at the point of reaching some of her goals. This is a bleak examination of the total breakdown of a life through the momentum of lies, fears and the determination to sell a story.
The numb feeling of disbelief never really subsides from the moment Gina sees herself on the television. At times this hampers the progress of the story while she wanders aimlessly around the streets of Sydney, not knowing who to turn to for help. But it also starkly illustrates the fragility of our place in society and the ease with which everything can be pulled out from under us.
Flanagan litters the book with barely functioning characters who are managing through their professional lives while their personal lives are crumbling around them. From Richard Cody, the sleazy television journalist representative of the worst in reporting, to the drugs cop, Nick Loukakis with a crumbling marriage and an uncertain future with a former lover, it seems that no-one is destined to escape unscathed.
The Unknown Terrorist has an important message to impart, one that is made in no uncertain terms and, regardless of the Doll's destiny, it is a story that is particularly relevant in today's uncertain global climate.