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The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

May 3, 2012

Pa`nop´ti`con ( noun). A circular prison with cells so constructed that the prisoners can be observed at all times. [Greek panoptos ‘seen by all’]

Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car, headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders .She can’t remember the events that led her here, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and there is blood on Anais’s school uniform.

Smart, funny and fierce, Anais is a counter-culture outlaw, a bohemian philosopher in sailor shorts and a pillbox hat. She is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met.

The residents of the Panopticon form intense bonds, heightened by their place on the periphery, and Anais finds herself part of an ad hoc family there. Much more suspicious are the social workers, especially Helen, who is about to leave her job for an elephant sanctuary in India but is determined to force Anais to confront the circumstances of her birth before she goes.

Looking up at the watchtower that looms over the residents, Anais knows her fate: she is part of an experiment, she always was, it’s a given, a liberty – a fact. And the experiment is closing in.


When this year’s Waterstones 11 selection was announced, The Panopticon was the one that really caught my eye, the one that appealed to me most, and the one I was most looking forward to. Several colleagues of mine had read it long before me and for most of them, it was their clear favourite too. After having now read it, I can safely say that I am definitely pleased it was chosen for the Waterstones 11 this year, and I feel it is certainly the bravest and perhaps riskiest choice of them all. I’m still undecided as to whether it’s my favourite, with others such as The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach, and The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey being very strong contenders. Of course, I have only read 5 so far, so it is perhaps not a fair judgement just yet! But back to The Panopticon

The first thing you will notice in picking up this book, is that the language may be a little different than what you’re used to in your standard novel. Jenni Fagan has used a Scottish dialect to really give Anais, the protagonist, a true voice. It’s a struggle to get used to at first, I have to admit, and it does help if you say the words out loud a couple of times just so as you can get a feel for the language, but once you do it becomes almost natural. It is without a doubt down to Jenni Fagan’s talent as a writer that this book becomes something special. She has certainly proved herself as a fresh and original new voice in contemporary fiction, and one you will be left in awe of. Anais is perhaps one of the most intriguing, interesting and enticing characters you will ever meet. She has no family, no real home, and no real long-lasting friends. Virtually everyone she has ever known has let her down in some way. She has been in ‘the system’ since she was a baby, and the system has done nothing but fail her, moving her from one place to the next. But Anais isn’t your average fifteen-year-old. She takes hard drugs, drinks too much alcohol, has sex with virtual strangers, and bends any rules thrown her way. You may judge her, you may not agree with her behaviour, you may even dislike her, but if you can see past all that, you will see that beneath it all is a real heart, and one that will pull you in and never let you go.

However, now Anais is in real trouble. A policewoman is lying in a coma, and everyone thinks Anais is responsible. She has been transferred to the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders, whilst the investigation continues. Anais can’t remember a thing, but she knows in her gut that she didn’t do it. But with everyone convinced of her guilt, it’s impossible for anyone to take her seriously, and she thinks the system has failed her yet again. But with new friendships forming with the other residents of the Panopticon, and the support she’s receiving from staff-member Angus, life is taking her by surprise.

Jenni Fagan doesn’t shy away from anything in this novel. With talk of drugs, prostitution, HIV, self-harming, rape, and the constant use of swear words; this isn’t a novel for the faint-hearted. Although most of this is justified, and it really is part of the world Anais lives in, at times I did find it slightly over-done, and became a little bored of the constant drug-taking and abuse, but that is just my opinion. The darkness of this novel may put some of you off if it’s not to your taste, but I would honestly recommend jumping outside your comfort zone with this one, as I think it could have broad appeal, once you reach the heart of the story.

I really felt for Anais and the life she lived, but also couldn’t help but admire her for the strength she had after everything she’d been through. She longs to discover her own identity and where she came from. She is constantly convinced that the ‘experiment’ (or the ‘system’) made her just for their amusement, that she never had any parents, or anyone who truly loved her. All she wants is to know that the mother, who seemingly gave birth to her, was real. There is a constant sense of Anais wanting to better her life, to get herself out of the ‘system’, and live a happy life, and you are fighting for her every step of the way. Her relationship with the other residents is extremely endearing. They are an odd little bunch of children, some of them likeable, some of them not so much. But ultimately, they are her family now. What I think let the story down a little, is that for me personally, the other characters didn’t feel quite as fleshed out as I wanted them to be, in comparison to Anais, especially the character of John. I wanted to get to know them better, for their personalities to feel more individual. I think this is why, even during the saddest parts of the novel, I didn’t cry once, or feel an overwhelming sense of emotion. Sure, it was sad, but I didn’t feel connected to them enough to feel something more. When I finished the novel, I knew it had all the elements of a great novel, it was fantastically written, had an intriguing story and a strong protagonist, and I enjoyed it immensely. But, something kept holding me back from saying to myself “I really love this book!” I can’t quite put my finger on what it was, but I think it is to do with the lack of an emotional connection to the characters around Anais. I also feel this wasn’t helped by the use of Scottish dialect – although a brave choice for Fagan to do, and one I do commend her on, I think I was probably concentrating too hard on saying it all right in my head and understanding what the words meant, that I lost some connection to the story along the way. This is a real shame because like I said, there is no denying Jenni Fagan is a wonderful writer.

I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this novel. It’s brave, bold and one of the most original pieces of fiction I’ve read in a while. Don’t let the Scottish dialect or use of language dissuade you from giving it a go, as you will get used to it. If you’re going to take a chance on anything this year, let it be this novel. I’m certain that The Panopticon is definitely one of the strongest contenders to win the Waterstones 11 prize. But what I’m even more excited about is discovering what Jenni Fagan will write next!

The Panopticon is out now published by William Heinemann. A big thank you goes to the publisher for providing me with an advanced copy for review.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 3, 2012 22:29

    Hmmm. I’d dismissed this novel on account of the dialect – but I think in view of your review, I might have to rethink.

    • May 4, 2012 07:50

      Do it! 🙂 I’ve always dismissed Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh on that account…but I don’t think The Panopticon’s dialect is quite as extreme as that…It’s only the odd words like ‘can’t’ becomes ‘cannae’ so for the most part you can figure it out easily 🙂 I hope you do give it a chance. I’d be keen to know your thoughts if you do!


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