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.

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Darkness fell: a review of Life after Life by Kate Atkinson

In 1939, a young woman walks into a German bar. She greets a group of people she knows sitting in the back. She steadies herself, draws her father’s revolver from her purse, and shoots Hitler. Darkness falls. On the next page, we are reintroduced to the young woman at the moment of her birth—and immediate death, because the doctor and midwife were both delayed and the cord is wrapped around her little neck.

Life after Life

“The woody fragrance of bonfire smoke drifted through the window and into the little attic room She could hear the clopping of hooves followed by the rattle of the coal as the coalman emptied his sacks into the coal shed. Life was going on. A thing of beauty.

One breath, that was all she needed, but it wouldn’t come.

Darkness fell swiftly, at first an enemy, but then a friend.”

– Life after Life, Kate Atkinson

In 1939, a young woman walks into a German bar. She greets a group of people she knows sitting in the back. She steadies herself, draws her father’s revolver from her purse, and shoots Hitler. Darkness falls. On the next page, we are reintroduced to the young woman at the moment of her birth—and immediate death, because the doctor and midwife were both delayed and the cord is wrapped around her little neck.

This dramatic juxtaposition, two very different endings to the same life, is how Kate Atkinson introduces us to her main character Ursula, and to the central conceit of her new novel, Life after Life. Jumping back and forth over a period of several decades from 1910 onward, we see Ursula die in countless ways. Drowning in the sea as a child, murdered by an abusive husband, bombed during the war. The variations are endless. And what could have been gimmicky or confusing in less talented hands becomes a tour de force for the formidable Atkinson.

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Extraordinary ordinariness: A review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

From humble beginnings emerges a remarkable journey (or two) in Rachel Joyce’s Man Booker longlisted debut novel. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry opens with an ordinary couple, living a nondescript life in their quiet English home. Harold and Maureen are in their 60s and have been married for 47 years. They keep themselves to themselves, making uncomfortable small talk with the next door neighbour and otherwise going about life in an unremarkable way.

“He understood that in walking to atone for the mistakes he had made, it was also his journey to accept the strangeness of others. As a passerby, he was in a place where everything, not only the land, was open. People would feel free to talk, and he was free to listen. To carry a little of them as he went. He had neglected so many things that he owed this small piece of generosity to Queenie and the past.”

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

From humble beginnings emerges a remarkable journey (or two) in Rachel Joyce’s Man Booker longlisted debut novel.The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry opens with an ordinary couple, living a nondescript life in their quiet English home. Harold and Maureen are in their 60s and have been married for 47 years. They keep themselves to themselves, making uncomfortable small talk with the next door neighbour and otherwise going about life in an unremarkable way.

Then one day, Harold receives a letter from a former co-worker named Queenie Hennessy who is writing to say goodbye because she has cancer and is dying. Harold is knocked off-kilter: he hasn’t spoken to Queenie in 20 years. When he goes to mail his response, he feels it’s not enough. After a random encounter with a girl who works in a garage, Harold comes to a decision, or a realization, that is somewhat startling for him: if he keeps walking, and believes that Queenie will be waiting for him at the end of that walk, then Queenie will keep living. He calls her hospice and asks them to pass along the message that he will be walking to her, from Kingsbridge in the south to Berwick-upon-Tweed in the north, over 500 miles. She must keep living as long as he keeps walking, he insists, and off he goes.

The premise is simple, and a bit illogical, and the protagonist is fully aware that his journey doesn’t make rational sense. Continue reading “Extraordinary ordinariness: A review of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce”