★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Ebook, aprox. 330 pages
Pa`nop´ti`con ( noun). A circular prison with cells so constructed that the prisoners can be observed at all times. 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.
In language dazzling, energetic and pure, The Panopticon introduces us to a heartbreaking young heroine and an incredibly assured and outstanding new voice in fiction.
So... I have a Criminology degree, and Jeremy Bentham and his Panopticon are kind of a big deal. The first time I saw a picture of what the panopticon was supposed to look like, chills ran down my spine. A circular prison, with a central tower, from where the guards can look into every cell. Of course, they can’t watch every cell at the same time, but the prisoners can’t exactly guess when their turn will be – so they behave as if they’re being watched. Ultimately, the panopticon would be able to run solely on the prisoners’ belief that they are being watched – even if months went by without them ever seeing a guard.
This is what I wanted to read about when I started this book. This is what I got:
Judging by other reviews, I’m not alone when I say that I somehow expected this to take place in a dystopia – but I honestly don’t know where I got that idea, because there’s nothing clearly dystopian about the synopsis. Maybe it’s the panopticon itself. Maybe I’m still seeing it as some of manipulative experiment with no place in the real world.
But anyway, plot. This book is about Anais, a rebel (with or without a case, that’s your call) who is sent to the panopticon, “a home for chronic young offenders”, after leaving a policewoman in a coma. This is the inciting incident, and while it does come with its own set of questions – did she do it? if so, why? if not, then why is there blood on her clothes? why can’t she remember? is she lying? –, they are never really explored or resolved. Now, I could be bothered by this, but I’m not. This isn’t a murder mystery. This isn’t a thriller. This is the story of a girl struggling to find her way, with the full conscience that she hasn’t exactly begun with a head start. She gets into fights, she smokes, she uses drugs, she misses the biological mother she never met, and she misses the foster mother who taught her all about silk robes and fancy cigarettes. There’s so much to this character that I don’t feel a structured plot was really necessary.
The author thought the same way, choosing instead to guide the reader through the character’s life without paying much mind to literary conventions – there are lots of questions that never find an answer, but still the ending manages to bring some closure, and, dare I even say this, hope.
Finally, and because it’s always important to point out these things, I’d just like to warn everyone that the book delves into rape, self-harm, and prostitution, so... keep that in mind.
I have already written a little bit about Anais, so I will just add a couple of points here. At first, I didn’t think she was going to be a great protagonist (“is she just going to swear and complain aaaaaaall the way through?”), but she ended up growing on me, along with her infinite set of quirks and dreams. (and can we please refrain from saying the book has “lesbian undertones”, as if her attraction to her own gender is just a flight of fancy in an otherwise straight girl? Anais is probably bisexual, people, let’s not invalidate that)
About the rest of the cast, I confess the kids from the panopticon kind of blurred together for me. The exceptions were John, who I found really intriguing, especially because we never really got to know much about him, and Isla and Tash, who were just heartbreaking. I loved how their relationship was treated in-universe, not only as valid, but as the most important connection in their lives. Isla’s guilt over having accidentally passed HIV to her children, her self-harm as coping mechanism, Tash’s determination to raise enough money to rent them a flat by working as a prostitute... I wanted to wrap these girls in a blanket and give them the world on a silver platter.
I was also quite fond of Angus, by far the most understanding member of the panopticon staff, and I liked the way he was contrasted against the rest of the guards, nurses, policemen, and so on. The way the characters reacted to these figures of authority really does show that Jenni Fagan has some knowledge of child protection – sometimes a simple conversation will work better than a locked room, and it takes someone like Angus to understand that
I started this review with my initial expectations for this book, and yes, most of them were related to the panopticon itself, as a building. The truth is, the panopticon in this book has very little to do with the panopticon as Jeremy Bentham envisioned it. The tower is still there, and so are the cells, but they have been turned into somewhat comfortable rooms, and there are doors the kids can close for privacy (not completely, but still). They are allowed to go out in the evenings, and if they behave properly they get a small allowance, as well.
I said this on Facebook, and I’ll say it again – Bentham must be kicking his glass case right about now, this is not his panopticon.
But there’s something interesting about this, though. Throughout the book, Anais talks about “the experiment”. We never really get to understand what it is, but we know it’s watching her. Maybe she’s paranoid, maybe she’s hallucinating again, but that feeling, that constant notion that one is being watched, observed, tested at all times... that is what the panopticon is about. So in a way, the title of this story fits more than the building it takes place in - because the panopticon, turns out, is everywhere.
Bentham must be sitting proud in his glass case.
4. Writing style
I don’t have a lot to say on this book’s writing style, except that I really wasn’t ready for the Scottish expressions. It took me a good forty-fifty pages to get used to them, but hey, I have only myself to blame for that.
Apart from that, I found the writing competent, and above all, adequate. No overindulgent, straight-out-of-the-dictionary prose here, sorry to say – though this doesn’t stop some passages from having a delightful air of surrealism to them. And can I just say that every time the flying cat was mentioned, I couldn’t hep but be reminded of The Master And Margarita? Strange. Behemoth wasn’t a flying cat, was he?
Anyway, let’s wrap this up. Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon is a good book, and it managed to get me all teary-eyed on two different moments. A solid four-star rating, and I look forward to the author’s next novel. Read it, it'll be worth your time.