The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

William Heinemann, 2012, 333 p. One of Scotland’s favourite books.

The Panopticon cover

Narrator Anais Hendricks has spent her life in care; from birth to her age now, fifteen. There was a short period when she had what was in comparison a stable home life when she was adopted by a prostitute. Unfortunately her adoptive mother was killed while Anais was in the room next door. Anais has been in and out of homes fifty-one times and in more trouble at school (which, of course, she barely attends) and with the police than you could count. She has a particular bent for stealing school minibuses then crashing them; and for fire-raising. The book, then, does not promise to be a bundle of laughs and Anais not a likely candidate for salvation. She is bright, though, and reads voraciously, has a keen sense of herself; and of injustice. As a sort of compensation she plays what she calls the birthday game, imagining all sorts of different beginnings for herself, and she dreams of a life in Paris.

We meet her when, under suspicion of having put a policewoman into a coma (of which she vehemently denies her guilt,) she is being transferred to the Panopticon of the title, a building from the centre of which the inmates are under the view of the staff at all times. A clue to her possible mental state is when she sees the stone cat at the entrance – which she dubs Malcolm – move its wings. She also thinks she is the subject of what she calls the Experiment, the project of a mysterious group which may be from another universe or dimension – and for whom the only evidence the reader has is Anais’s words – and she is being tested to destruction in the sense she thinks the Experiment wants her to commit suicide. But, despite the Experiment, she feels that, “I, the young miss Anais, understand wholly that I am just a human being that nobody is interested in.”

She has a keen sense of morality, “I’d lay (sic) down and die for someone I loved; I’d fuck up anyone who abused a kid, or messed with an old person. … I’m honest as fuck and you’ll never understand that. …. I’ve read books you’ll never look at, danced to music you couldnae appreciate, and I’ve more class, guts and soul in my wee finger than you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable fucking life.” However she cannot reveal this to any of the care workers; not even Angus Everlen, who is the only care worker who has seen any good in her.

Her relationships with fellow inmates, Tash, Isla (a very well-drawn picture of a mother devastated that her HIV positive status has been passed on to her twin children) and Shortie are vividly realised. They become almost a surrogate family but of course cannot look out for each other as much as each of them needs.

Anais’s biological mother may have had psychotic schizophrenia, as may Anais. A man who claims to have witnessed Anais’s birth tells her she is the daughter of an Outcast Queen, who could fly (as Anais imagines she does. But, then, she does take a lot of drugs.)

A rumbling sub-plot concerning Anais’s boyfriend, who it is always apparent has used her (very few of her acquaintances don’t) but is now in prison and owes people a lot of money, comes to a hideous head, triggering Anais’s resolve.

This is a book about the lives of those who are not often represented in fiction – nor ever sympathetically in the normal way of public discourse – and so of course acts a necessary corrective.

It is not an easy read but it is so well written it was easy to read – at least I found it so. The stream of consciousness had a flow to it, logic even, though perhaps it helps to have some knowledge of the culture from which it springs. The splattering of the text with Midlothian demotic and expletives did not offend me (as it might others.) This is the way some people talk, especially those who tend to be discounted by the organs of the state. Anais has a distinct voice – even if you cannot quite be certain what to believe of what she says and it is at times perhaps a little too assured. “I’m a bit unconvinced by reality full stop. It’s fundamentally lacking in something and nobody seems bothered…” “…all the time this infinite universe surrounds us, and everyone pretends it’s not there.” The details of life as an inmate in the care system were convincing enough, though.

The symbol of a Panopticon as a metaphor for teenage existence – especially in the care system – was potentially a good one but at times became a trifle overblown and wasn’t actually entirely justified by the set up shown us in the book.

As a novel I’ll doubtless remember The Panopticon for a long time. I don’t think I’ll ever describe it as a favourite, though.

Pedant’s corner:- Anais refers to The Experiment as plural throughout, also – apart from one “lie” – she uses “lay” for being horizontal and “kosh” for cosh: all of these are direct expressions of Anais though. Otherwise; “he’s always owe them money” (owed,) take the edge of the colours (off, I think,) “‘Vive le révolution’” (Vive la révolution: the speaker is supposed to know her French, she’d get the noun’s gender right,) ditto “vive le” 3 lines later, naïvist (naïvest,) “for something I dinnae do” (didnae.)

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    […] excellent writing and utterly believable characters. Stella’s voice in particular is a joy. In The Panopticon Fagan has previously shown ability to get inside the head of a troubled teenager. In that book the […]

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