This is a brilliant but disturbing book, especially given all the political and media hype at the moment, regarding would-be terrorist activity and the need for draconian laws to stifle it.
Although beautifully written, the first part, set in a pole-dancing club, feels a little like the cold channel of deep water that has to be navigated before reaching the sandbank and the breakers beyond. Initially, I wondered at the need for such detail, which, at times, seems almost voyeuristic; however, I later realized that it was necessary in order to put the rest of the novel into perspective. There is also, I feel, a parallel between how the men at the club mindlessly gorge their senses on the semi-naked women and the way the general public are titillated by all the small details related to a suspected terrorist.
As we are told more and more of Gina's story, we realize that she is an ordinary person who, after a difficult start in life, is set on turning her life around. Like most of the characters in the book, she has ambition, but it is more genuine and more human. She looks on herself as a realist, but, as Flanagan notes: Realism is the embrace of disappointment, in order no longer to be disappointed. (p.9)
After the introduction in the Chairman's Lounge, fear is poured into the mix, and like when red ink is added to water everything gradually changes colour. Flanagan wrote: “People like fear. We all want to be frightened and we all want someone to tell us how to live…” (p.166) and, in the words of the ASIO character: “… unless they're terrified, they (the people) won't agree with what we do and why we do it… ” (p.272)
The politicians, the media, the police, the security services all feed the people this fear, not only to keep the people where they want them but also to further their own careers – no one (except, perhaps, the policeman Nick Loukakis) gives any thought to the victim who is being sacrificed.
In the end, everyone is at fault: the politicians and the media for creating the situation and the public for not having the brains to be able to see through the deceit. The terrifying thing is that this is where we are at the moment, and no one seems to understand what is happening. Terrorism is a definite threat to present-day society, but when concocted threats are used for political and personal gain then one has to wonder who are the terrorists and whether or not there is any way of salvaging our society.
Photo of Richard Flanagan from www.wheelercentre.com