book review

They’re Watching: a review of The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

What can you say about a girl with a hole through her middle, or a boy with bees living in his stomach? Or immortal pigeons and impossible creatures? They’re pretty peculiar. In Hollow City, Ransom Riggs’ sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, Jacob Portman also calls them his friends. Jacob is Peculiar too.

The Panopticon

“It’s why nobody kept me. Except Teresa and she got murdered, and whose fault was that? The therapist said it wasnae mine, but I could have checked on her, I could have made her come through for lunch. I could have knocked on the door after her client left and asked her if she wanted a cup of tea. . .
The experiment know.
They dinnae know this, though: I’d die before I’d pick on someone. I would. You dinnae bully people, ever, ’cause all bullies are cowards.”

The Panopticon, Jenni Fagan

Anais Hendricks, 15 years old, covered in blood, and coming down off a trip she can’t remember, is accused of attacking a police officer and leaving her in a coma. If the officer dies, Anais will be in worse trouble still. She’s been moved through dozens of foster homes, and the one touch of stability she’s had ended when her adoptive mother Teresa was found murdered, possibly by one of her own johns. So Anais is off to the Panopticon, a home for juvenile offenders, and those with nowhere else to go, designed so that its inhabitants can be seen everywhere by its guards. The kids who call it home may be referred to as “clients” by the staff, but they’re clients who can be monitored at all times.

And Anais knows all about monitoring: she believes she was grown in a petri dish by a shadowy group called “the experiment.” They watch her every move, and they’re closing in on her. Just when she thinks she can breathe someone she trusts warns her about the experiment—or is that just a hallucination? What about the stone winged cat perched above the Panopticon? Was it really foretold by the monk at the insane asylum who claims to have met Anais’s birth mother? There’s a lot going on in this pulsing, ferocious narrative, driven by the forcefully independent voice of Anais.

The great strength of this book is its young heroine. Anais is a nuanced, strong, broken, incredibly real character, and her every word is compelling. Did Anais put the cop in the coma? She honestly has no idea, but she doesn’t think she did. She’s willing to give (or take) a beating when necessary, to defend her honour or others who can’t defend themselves, but she doesn’t relish the violence. She prefers vintage clothing and letting drugs alter her world view. But this is only the latest in over a hundred offences, and Anais is about to be written off, sent to solitary or adult prison. Most of the adults in her life have already passed judgement on her, whether it’s a court official telling her she’s rotten to the core and destined to reoffend or a well-meaning old friend who promises to hook her up with only classy prostitution.

She’s an excellent unreliable narrator, her difficult life experiences blending seamlessly with her imagination and her paranoid, drug-induced delusions to infuse the book with a touch of magical realism to a mostly tragic tale. While the Scottish slang and strong language might take a little bit for the non-Scottish reader to get used to, it’s absolutely worth the adjustment. Anais’s story is raw and fraught with violence and abuse, and she doesn’t shy away from narrating exactly what has happened in her life. She puts herself forward as worldly, and she’s definitely lived through more awfulness than most people do in a lifetime. But her voice also betrays her youth and her still innocent outlook, which adds to her tragedy. At heart, she’s a lost girl who can’t find her own identity. She doesn’t know who her real parents were. She blames herself for the death of the only person who has ever cared about her.

This is more a slice of life than a traditionally plotted novel, though “slice of life” implies far more happiness than I mean. This book is a study in character and an examination of the horrible situation Anais has found herself in because of horrible circumstances that have brought her there. This works well: Anais’s story isn’t one of setup, exposition, climax, ending. We’re only with her for a short time, traveling in her shoes for one particular episode of her life. Meanwhile, we get a glimpse into the different hells the other kids at The Panopticon have endured, and the ways their differences and their tragic pasts allow them to bond. Sometimes they just help each other get by, and sometimes they have a damned good time, finding small happinesses among all the sadness, all the ways adults and society have failed them. A deeply critical look at the child welfare system in Scotland, this structure also allows Fagan to explore issues of identity: orphaned Anais doesn’t know where she came from and has a bleak future. Without roots, goals, or anyone to care for her, who is she, really?

Oddly, the titular Panopticon is the least important part of the setup, and could be used to greater effect, or excised entirely. The kids come and go, staying out late, getting into all sorts of mischief, both legal and illegal. The real Panopticon in this book is the symbolic one, the ever-present experiment in Anais’ mind, the ever-present judgment of a society that’s already abandoned her. Having a physical and somewhat ineffectual Panopticon as a housing solution for bad kids doesn’t add to the story.

With searing, beautiful prose that never breaks character, there are sentences and insights in this book that are breathtaking. The excellent setup deliberately leaves a boatload of unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable, questions, and the ending is killer. A skewering of a system and a society that fails its most vulnerable members, The Panopticon is also a celebration of human kindness, even when that kindness isn’t enough to save someone. Its subtle magical realism only highlights the fact that there is no magic here. There’s only gritty, awful life with its moments of worthwhile beauty.

Four and a half out of five blue pencils

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan, published in Canada by Hogarth, © 2013

Available at Amazon, Indigo, and at fine independent bookstores everywhere via Indiebound.

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