Bibliophiliac is the space where one passionate, voracious reader reflects on books and the reading life. You will find reviews, analysis, links, and reflections on poetry and prose both in and out of the mainstream.

A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. Franz Kafka

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: The Panopticon

The Panopticon
Jenni Fagan
hardcover, $22.00
282 pages
a review copy was provided by the publisher through TLC Book Tours

Anais Hendricks is a fifteen-year-old "girl with a shark's heart," a chronic young offender who has spent her entire life in foster care. As The Panopticon begins, Anais is being brought to a "care facility"--the eponymous Panopticon. A panopticon is a building, usually a prison, designed as a circular or c-shaped structure, with cells lining the interior of the structure, and a watchtower in the center. From this watchtower the interior of each cell is visible, but the inhabitants of the cells are unable to see the watcher within the tower. It's a creepy, Big Brother-like concept.

Anais is on her way to the Panopticon because she is suspected of critically injuring a female police officer, who is in a coma and may die. Anais has no memory of that day, but the school skirt she was wearing has blood on it, and her previous record is damning.

The Panopticon is set in Scotland (Jenni Fagan is Scottish), and the novel is told in the first-person by Anais. It veers between fantasy and stark reality, with lots of drug-induced confusion in between. Anais is damaged, angry, and fierce. She has a fantasy that she is from an "experiment":
It is always the same. In the nightmare they grow me from a pinprick, an infinitesimal scrap of bacterium, study me through microscopes while wearing radiation suits and masks. There's a stupid tune in my head. What is it? It's the nursery rhyme Teresa used tae sing about what little girls are made of. Sugar and spice and all things nice; what-a-crock-of-shit--I knew I wasnae all things nice, even then.
Anais is hard--life has made her that way. She uses profanity that would make a sailor blush. She imbibes a horrifying amount of drugs throughout the book, mixing and smoking and popping and dropping more chemicals than I even knew existed.

And Anais has a deep distrust of authority, social workers, and other things:
I'm suspicious of silence, and reality, and social workers. I'm suspicious of teachers, and police, and psychologists, and clowns, and apples, and red meat, and cows. Cows are too  big and their telepathic. You walk past a cow field and they all just turn as one being, and stare. And they do chase people, I've fucking seen them. Bovine grass-munching hippies--my arse!
Anais tells her story in episodic fashion. We get story after story from her painful childhood and teens; stories of abuse, of drug abuse, of her own criminal (usually drug-fueled) behavior.

The Panopticon  is disturbing and bleak, and will not appeal to every reader. While I admired Fagan's storytelling and her inventive prose, this was a book that I needed to put down from time to time. At times I wanted to shout at Anais for her bad judgment and impulsive behavior. But I admired the character's intelligence, her compassion, and her perverse humor. To say that Anais is a survivor is an understatement:
As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I'm a good one. A showstopper. I'm the kind of kid they'll still inquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick. I lure them in to begin with. Cultivate my specimen face. They like that. Do-gooders are vomit-worthy. Damaged goods are dangerous. The ones that are in it 'cause they thought it would be a step up from an office job are tedious. The ones who've been in too long lose it. The ones who think they've got the Jesus touch are fucking insane. The I can save you brigade are particularly radio-active. They think if you just inhale some of their middle-classism then you'll be saved.
Anais has little  to no use for anything that is part of any system. The only salvation she seems to find is in the friendships she forms with the other damaged teens at the Panopticon. One or two adults earn some element of grudging almost-trust, but Anais has mostly scorn and contempt for adults. But then she trusts the most scurrilous characters--like her drug-dealing jailed boyfriend who keeps texting her.

I had very mixed feelings about The Panopticon. For a while I thought I really didn't like this novel--it was almost too painful to read. But in the end, Anais won me over. I couldn't fathom her at times, but there was something about her I had to like in the end. She had her moral code: no bullying, no cruelty to children or old people. She'll steal as casually as she swore, but she has morals. Some of what she endures in the novel was very difficult to read; but it was believable. The Panopticon will dazzle fans of Irvine Welsh and William Burroughs; readers who are put off by violence, sexuality and raw language will want to skip this book. Jenni Fagan has a fiercely original voice, and I will be looking forward to her next book.


Heather J @ TLC Book Tours said...

I'm very glad to see that the author won you over by the end!

Thanks for being on the tour. I'm featuring your review on TLC's Facebook page today.

Bybee said...

I so want to read this book. I'm putting it on my wishlist. Thanks for the review.

bibliophiliac said...

@Bybee-Thanks! I hope you enjoy the book.