While I was searching for books featuring disabled character for GeekDis, the Unknown Man caught my eye, and I was fortunate enough to get a chance to review it! Many thanks to Love Book Tours and the author for providing me with a copy of The Unknown Man to review.
This book was provided for free by Love Book Tours and the author in exchange for an honest review.
This is a crime novel about an investigation about two young female twins that have gone missing, so as you would expect the investigation covers topics such as child abuse. There are no scenes of child abuse in this book, however, there are scenes and flashbacks of mutilation of the female body (both adult and child). There are scenes of violence, death, mentions of torture, abuse and details about cancer treatments.
When I first read the synopsis for The Unknown Man, I was curious, and also a little concerned about the wording; “abnormality”. This could mean a lot of things, and while I was intrigued by the plot, I was also concerned that this was a book that leaned more towards disability as a negativity, as something that needed to be hid. Or that the protagonist was going to be a token disabled character who’s “abnormality” was paraded around like a circus freak. The book came to me through the attention of Love Book Tours, and I trusted Kelly not to be promoting such a book, so instead of jumping to a conclusion I reached out on GoodReads for further confirmation. Hanson herself replied:
Hi Heather. The book’s protagonist (Zalla), has fluctuating asymmetry. It means the left and right side of her body are not aligned. Two different size feet, breasts, etc. The theme of being ‘a bit uneven’ runs in parallel to Zalla’s interest in the chaos and imbalance of the universe. Hope that answers your question.
I’m not familiar with fluctuating asymmetry, and I appreciated Hanson not only answering my question, but providing me with information about the condition and how it related to the book itself. I was seeking reads for GeekDis at the time and while I don’t think abnormality was the right choice of word, The Unknown Man introduced a disability that I had not seen ever mentioned in fiction before. Furthermore, I don’t read crime, but for this I’m willing to read outside my norm because something about this book has caught my interest.
I was immediately sucked into this book. I’ve tried reading crime before; after all, I love the genre in TV and film, so why not books? There’s just something about the way it’s written that I can’t get into. Most of the time I can get by with urban fantasy/crime hybrids, but I once tried to read a noir vampire novel, which was more like a crime novel that happened to have a vampire detective rather than an urban fantasy novel. I hated every single moment of it until I finally gave up trying.
The Unknown Man was the complete opposite. I found Zalla to be an interesting and sympathetic protagonist, a disabled woman who has carved a place in the world while constantly struggling to feel like she fits in the world because of her asymmetry. The condition that means her body is physically different from others also gives her above normal intelligence, something that has given her brilliant deductive skills as a profiler. However, this once again sets her apart from her peers and has prevented Zalla from being placed with a permanent team in the FBI. While her colleagues have settled into roles, she is permanently set adrift and singled out, something that she has never asked for and leads to animosity between her co-workers.
I found it very easy to see things from Zalla’s perspective, not just as a disabled woman, but as someone with mental health conditions. I always strive for balance in my life, in a world where my seven chronic health conditions regularly throw me off balance, and here was a woman who felt like she was born into chaos. As Hanson said to me, the theme of balance and chaos runs through the book, and it made a lot of sense to me. I think that is what kept drawing me back to the story and Zalla.
This is a crime novel, and it gets very dark, almost bordering on horror. I did work out who the unknown man, the unknown suspect was, and I think that is intended. The reader is led directly to it. It’s the “why” that is supposed to be the surprise, the shock and horror of the story, and it is. This book is more akin to the darker stories of Criminal Minds and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit, the ones that make you squirm, look away and maybe even want to vomit. It is the darkest areas of a broken human psyche, and I don’t mean psychopathy, I mean trauma. Some people go through trauma in life and live with it, broken but put back together in a rough semblance of human, some get help at the time or later in life, some completely break and some go get put back together but are irrevocably broken. This is about the latter.
The Unknown Man is a stark reminder that you never know what someone has been through or is going through. That someone could be struggling with an illness, and you would never know. That they could have someone at home who is terminally ill, and you have no idea. Underneath baggy clothing, they could be hiding a physical condition, or an eating disorder.
Or while standing in line for coffee, they could be planning a murder….
The Unknown Man will certainly hit the spot for crime fans looking for something unique and sensationalist. But what about from a disability perspective? Zalla doesn’t refer to herself as disabled, and that’s not a problem. I actually like that she doesn’t, because that’s the same as it is in real life. Not everyone with a condition that affects them physically feels that it makes them disabled, or recognises that they can consider themselves to be disabled.
Hanson does a fantastic job of interweaving Zalla’s asymmetry into the story, not making the book about her asymmetry, so it’s not used as a plot device, but not ignoring how it affects every part of her daily life either. That’s the thing that a lot of writers seem to forget when writing characters with a physical condition; it’s there constantly. Every time we move, even if it’s just to each for a book on a shelf or for a pen, we’re acutely aware of how our body moves and how different it is to other people. This awareness comes across throughout The Unknown Man.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and although I’m not a crime novel fan, I’m most definitely going to be checking out the second book!
Books by Natalie Hanson
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Over to you
Thank you for reading my review for The Unknown Man! This is my first book review for GeekDis, a collaborative event for members of the disability community to talk about disability representation in pop culture. I’ll be sharing more book reviews of books featuring disabled characters throughout September. You can read more about GeekDis here!
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