📚 The Unknown Terrorist (Richard Flanagan)

Read The Unknown Terrorist by Richard Flanagan

From the winner of the Man Booker Prize. What would you do if you turned on the television and saw you were the most wanted terrorist in the country?

After spending a night with an attractive stranger, Gina Davies becomes a prime suspect in an attempted terrorist attack. When police find three unexploded bombs at a stadium, Gina goes on the run and witnesses every truth of her life turned into a betrayal.

A devastating picture of a world where the ceaseless drumbeat of terror alerts, news breaks, and fear of the unknown push one woman ever closer to breaking point, The Unknown Terrorist is a novel that with each passing year seems more relevant and more prophetic.


The Unknown Terrorist, the fourth novel by the Australian novelist Richard Flanagan, tells the story of Gina ‘Doll’ Davies, a stripper who becomes embroiled in a terrorist plot. The various elements of her life, whether it be not having a bank account or the job that she chooses to do, mean that she is made the scapegoat for a terrorist threat.

I wrote a longer reflection here.


Gina Davies, also known as the Doll, a 26-year-old exotic dancer in a Sydney, Australia, gentlemen’s club, undergoes this Kafkaesque experience. On the night of Sydney’s Mardi Gras parade, she sleeps with a man she has just met, an attractive Syrian computer programmer with a cocaine habit. A day later, after his sudden disappearance, she has been turned into Australia’s most hunted woman — or, as a newspaper would have it, the “Dancer of Death.” By following the desperate flight of this once normal, now supposedly lethal, woman, Flanagan suggests the accused herself has become the victim of an insidious institutional terrorism.

Source: Unusual SuspectBy Uzodinma Iweala

The Unknown Terrorist reads like the book of the film it will surely become.


Despite all this puffery, Flanagan’s homeland is no longer a community, hardly even a society. Its people, like the lap dancer with her craving for designer clothes, are mired in materialism, obsessed with mortgages, superannuation payments and the acquisition of the latest, shiniest gadget. Their venality makes moral cowards of them, and the government terrorises them into brown-tonguing Bush by appealing to their economic anxiety and to their skulking xenophobia.

Source: Days of thunder erupt Down UnderBy Peter Conrad

The book is full of clichés and stereotypes as brutal as those Flanagan criticises. The poll dancers who talk about the Doll are all utterly vacuous. The bad guys, Lee Moon, Frank Moretti, the anchorman Richard Cody, or the wealthy people at Katie Moretti’s party are all characters with no depth or dimension to render them realistic. Sydney itself is seen as a kind of game park with grungy areas like Kings Cross, suburbian areas like the West, or wealthy areas like Double Bay all fulfilling their stereotypical functions

Source: A review of The Unknown Terrorist by Richard FlanaganBy Magdalena Ball

Where was the defamation lawyer at Channel Six asking “What are our defences?” before Cody’s one-hour mishmash of guesswork and grainy footage – also called The Unknown Terrorist – went to air? And it doesn’t really help if the answer to that question is: stop being picky, this is a thriller. Without a sense that these horrors might happen, there’s not much thrill, either.

Source: The Unknown Terrorist by David Marr


Chapter 7

Around them, washing up from the gentrified tenements and newly built designer apartments of Darlinghurst and the ceaselessly refurbished mansions of Elizabeth Bay, rushed the incoming tide of property values and inner-city hypocrisy, rising as inexorably and as pitilessly as the nearby globally warmed Pacific Ocean.


For he, a man come out of the red mystery of the Kimberley’s pindan dust into the blue certainty of the Kings Cross night, sensed in Sydney that the possibility of human community was a pointless dream, that cities revealed that men shared with algae the most natural destiny: meaninglessness confused by the inexplicable need to live. There were no words for any of it, but a pole dancing club seemed to him a better place than an algal fermentation vat to watch its cracked unravelling.

Chapter 8

Like reptiles waiting to strike, they gazed out on Australia, unable to see anything.

Chapter 10

There could be no doubt about it; they were Australia and, looking around Katie Moretti’s grand dining room and its new furniture and its splendid view, it was readily apparent to them all what Australia was, and all of Australia was as splendid as it was obvious—it was them! It was their success and their prosperity; their mansions and apartments! Their Porsches and Bentleys and Beemers! Their getaways in the tropics! Their yachts and motorcruisers! Their influence, their privileges, their certainties! Who could doubt it? Who would question it? Who would wish to change any of it?

Chapter 11

Sometimes Richard Cody shocked even himself with his opinions and the violence with which he forced them on others. What was even more shocking to him was how other people tended to agree meekly with him, not, he feared, because they thought he was right, but only because he was stronger, louder, more aggressive. People, he felt, merely went where they sensed power.

Chapter 17

While he went to the cash register and from a drawer beneath it pulled out the cash, the Doll checked the figures. When she was sure they were correct, she took out her black Prada Saffiano leather chequebook wallet from the Gucci handbag she now hated, and opened it. The six credit card slots were empty, as was its chequebook compartment. The Doll had neither bank account nor credit rating: the chequebook wallet, she believed, helped convey a different impression. To the eight hundred dollars in its cash compartment, she now added the notes Ferdy handed her, though not before quickly thumb-counting them.

Chapter 18

The Chairman’s Lounge paid well, but they paid cash, and she didn’t want to get caught by the tax office. And so none of her money went where it could be traced, and all of it went into the batik silk bag.

Chapter 19

It was a fix, like blow, and like blow it always wore off too quickly and left you wanting that feeling back.

Chapter 20

At the club you danced for money, and you danced because you were Krystal or Jodie or Amber. The one thing you never dared dance was yourself.

Chapter 22

Maybe he’d wanted a way out of his marriage. Or maybe he just wasn’t thinking. Maybe the affair ended the marriage. Or maybe the marriage was over when the affair began. The affair lasted several years. He believed it would fall apart each time he saw her again, fearing that she would no longer want him.

How was it possible to live with another human being so closely, to eat with them, sleep with them, smell their breath, and yet be so unspeakably alone?

Chapter 28

How stupid in this heat!’ thought the Doll. ‘Why can’t they just be like us?’ She decided to pity her, and her pity felt a kind of necessary superiority. And it struck the Doll as a particularly humiliating thing for any woman to have to get about in gear as bad as a burkah. But then the Doll remembered the television creep telling her how humiliating it must be to be a pole dancer, and she felt strangely confused.

Chapter 33

The man was obvious—a Middle Eastern name and a no-doubt predictable past—and, from what the news reports were saying, a known terrorist. But the pole dancer was different: an Aussie turning on their own—an unknown terrorist. Because there was no doubt now in Richard Cody’s mind that Gina Davies was a killer. The more he thought about her, the more inescapable and logical his thinking was. Just looking back on the time he had spent with her the previous night he could see now that something hadn’t been right about her. Hadn’t she been secretive when he asked her about her private life? And when he put to her a more than generous proposal wasn’t she unpleasantly aggressive? ‘No,’ thought Richard Cody, ‘something was wrong with her—very wrong.’

Chapter 35

None of this predisposed Richard Cody to the notion of her innocence. They were merely problems to overcome. His instinct was to create a story in which he more and more believed, in order to allow him to further create that story. He did not say to himself: “Although there is no evidence of any guilt or wrongdoing, I am going to stitch this woman up with concocted assertions.” He did not think any such thing, because he would have despised himself if he had ever thought himself capable of making up such monstrous lies.

“It is horrifying,” Siv Harmsen agreed, “and we need stories that remind people of what horrifying things might just happen.”

Chapter 39

In the Doll’s mind her fate and the fate of the beggar became one and the same. ‘She’s desperate, I’m desperate,’ thought the Doll as people poured past. ‘We’re no different.’

Chapter 42

With Chopin she knew the terrible, wretched truth: she was naked and alone.

Chapter 48

“They can take everything from you, Wilder,” the Doll said, sensing that for a second time she was going to consciously disagree with Wilder. She spoke in a hush, so that Max would not be woken. “They make these things up, they take something innocent about your life and say it proves you’re guilty, they take a truth and they turn it into a lie. How can they do that? Like, there’s this guy today at the ferry terminal, reading these lies about me in the paper, and he’s shaking his head and swearing about me. I knew he believed them because up until yesterday I was like him, just hanging around, waiting for this or that, swallowing all the crap I read and heard, and then just puking all the crap back up.”

I’m important to them, Wilder, because if you can make up a terrorist you’ve given people the Devil. They love the Devil. They need the Devil. That’s my job. You get me?”

Chapter 53

“Islamist ideology is irresistible for such a profile,” continued Ray Ettslinger, who knew almost nothing about Islam. “It offers both a secure identity and the mechanism for revenge. Alternatively, her father loves her and dotes on her and she’s spoilt—the Patty Hearst syndrome.” Ray Ettslinger knew almost nothing about Patty Hearst either.

“It’s like Sudoku,” said Ray Ettslinger before hanging up. “You just have to make the numbers fit.”

Chapter 54

To her horror she saw that, as she had never cared or wondered or questioned, nor now would anyone care or wonder or question the stories they heard about her. As she had helped no one, how could she now expect anyone to help her? And as she had in a chorus condemned others, how could she be surprised that others in a chorus were now condemning her?

Chapter 57

Looking back, thought Frank Moretti, what Lee Moon had said was true. That we exist to be bought and sold. That our natural laws, our destiny, our biology, amount to our capacity to cut a deal. That the world is a bazaar. And all this Moretti felt he had signed up to and lived in accordance with.

After the Greek cop left, Moretti realised that had he been taken into custody and grilled, perhaps he might have confessed what he had done, told them about all his many businesses—the forgeries of Aboriginal paintings and company memoranda, the phoney antiques, the smuggling of drugs and people—and even how he had done it; but it would have been the explanations as to why that would be impossible to give and, Moretti felt, impossibly annoying.

Chapter 60

Rather than presenting a problem, the death of Tariq al-Hakim solved one of Richard Cody’s key dilemmas. Jerry Mendes had gone cold on the Bonnie and Clyde title. As no one had yet come up with anything better, the special had only been promoted generally as “a chilling exposé about home-grown terrorism here in Australia”. Jerry Mendes would, he knew, now agree to the special being focused on Gina Davies. And Richard Cody felt he had a new and perhaps vital element in his story. For what does a Black Widow do but slay her partner?

Chapter 64

There were so many voices now, so much being pushed, so little worth knowing, and the Doll, once so attuned to the white noise of the city, like a smart radio receiver able to find just what band related to her, what frequency she needed to hear, no longer heard any of it.

Chapter 65

“‘You talk to a journalist about this, any of this—tonight’s raid, this, these questions—you go to jail for five years. Under the ASIO Act that’s Australian law too, now. You breathe one word about your arrest, this interrogation, to a neighbour, your sister, your best friend, you go to jail for five years. Besides,’ he says, ‘under the ASIO Act the media isn’t allowed to run any story about your arrest and detention or they go to jail for five years too.’
“He seemed a bit tired—it was like, I dunno, maybe six in the morning—and I think he was disappointed and bored with me because I guess I wasn’t, you know, much of a terrorist.
“‘Unless, of course,’ he says, ‘we authorise the story. I hope I’ve helped make your position clear.’

Chapter 73

‘They cut you up, eh, Wilder?’ the Doll wanted to interrupt her friend. ‘They make you into what you’re not and then they condemn you for being who they say you are, then it’s like, “Do what we say or we’ll kill you”, and then …’ But her thoughts petered out, and she said nothing of the sort. In any case, the Doll knew such ideas made no sense to Wilder, while the cop’s story, whether it was true or not, explained everything neatly, like the Sydney Morning Herald, like the ALP, like all her opinions: a mistake with the world that Wilder knew how to set right.

Chapter 77

Simultaneously, a memory and a feeling of dread came over the Doll. She remembered what Tariq had said to her only two nights earlier about raster graphics—how it was what they—the powerful—would like to do with real people if they could. But Tariq only changed images, dot by dot, until Elvis was an ostrich. They were doing something far bolder: turning her from a woman into cartoons, headlines, opinions, fears, fate. They were morphing her pixel by pixel, the Doll realised with terror, into what she wasn’t, the Black Widow, the dancer of death, the unknown terrorist.

Chapter 78

“I trust Athens on this,” said Tony Buchanan.
“That dick for brains,” said Siv Harmsen, “has got an SBS mind in an MTV world.”

“You want what’s right, Tony? You want what’s true? Kill a dozen or so Poms and you’re Ivan Milat and in prison. Kill a hundred thousand Iraqis and you’re George W. Bush and in the White House. One’s powerful, one’s not. Do you know who gives a rat’s? No one.

Chapter 79

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. Maybe, thought the Doll, if it was just like fashion, it was simply about a few people building careers, making money, getting power, and it wasn’t really about making the world safer or better at all. Maybe it was like Botox, something to hide the truth.

Chapter 80

“Listen, Tony, even if you’re right,” he said, “you couldn’t change any of it. This story, you know, it serves a bigger purpose, the big picture, right?”

Tony Buchanan finally connected with Siv Harmsen at some deeply buried place where he understood that to share power was to share guilt.

Chapter 81

“What kind of scumbags?” the radio asked. “Islamic scumbags.”
The tv said: “Four hundred mill Pantene Pro-V. $4.95. Today only. We’re the fresh food people.”
The radio said: “And it’s not politically correct to say it, but I’m saying it.”

The noise of radios and tvs, the sight of endless magazines and catalogues and papers that spilled over the café tables were like Temazepam, setting her adrift from reality and heading her back down a deep tunnel.

Chapter 82

It was fine to be free, but free to do what? To go mad? To endlessly hear your own name being talked about with horror and fear?

Chapter 85

As her father went into a coughing fit, the Doll realised he was repeating more or less what he had said to her at thirteen when she asked him to stop touching her between her legs and to stop kissing her with his tongue.
“Have you got a message for your daughter?”
“Yeah, don’t hurt others like you hurt those who love you.”

on the psychologist went, knitting all the disparate stories into one large untruth: a sad and bitter woman with vengeance on her mind, corrupted by a closet fundamentalist.

Chapter 86

There was truth, but perhaps the world needed lies. The Doll leant in to the table and flattened a nostril. Perhaps it was ever so, she thought. She put her nose down, and snorted back.

Chapter 89

Ladies required killed at pleasure.
The Doll burst out laughing; she thought how she must tell Wilder about it—but then she remembered what she intended doing and how she might never see Wilder again. ‘No,’ thought the Doll, ‘nothing is funny. Everything is about hate. The world only exists to hate and destroy. Every joke, every smile, everything happy exists only to cover up this truth.’

Chapter 93

The Doll realised that she hadn’t really known she was alive until she had felt bad enough to want to kill. How was it possible to say that being a murderer or a terrorist is something in this world now, but being the Doll was dying over and over? That she had been shut out of this world, so she had made another world? That when love is not enough, what else can someone do?

Chapter 95

there was no redemption, no resurrection. There was only this life from which she could feel herself ever more quickly leaving.

Chapter 96

As a story it did not have the scent of place, nor the hope of home. Nor did it offer the reassurance stories sometimes can have and perhaps ought to have. It is the ruffian on the stairs, and the ruffian may very well be you. Who can say what any of us might do if denied the possibility of love?

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