I received this book for free from the publisher / TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
Published by Hogarth on July 23, 2013
Source: the publisher / TLC Book Tours
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This book is so good.
The Panopticon is written in first-person, narrated by a 15-year-old girl named Anais Hendricks. The story is set in Scotland and when it opens, Anais is being accused of beating a police officer into a coma and is being placed in an institution called the Panopticon. The rest of the story goes through Anais’s time in the Panopticon and the life circumstances/choices that have ultimately led to her being placed there. The subject matter doesn’t make for easy reading–The Panopticon is gritty and sometimes heartbreaking, it contains a bit of strong language, sex, and violence. But it’s real life for a lot of people, and Fagan writes it in a way that doesn’t make it preachy or overwhelming. The Panopticon also contains humor (though of a dark nature), friendship, love, and a kind of redemption or hope.
Coincidentally, I just learned about panopticons last February while reading Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. For those who don’t know what a panopticon is, it’s a circular facility first designed in the late 18th century, with an observation tower placed at the center. The observation tower is equipped with a two-way mirror so the observers can see out, but the inmates can’t see in. The idea behind a panopticon is that the inmates are observed without being able to see their observers and without knowing when they’re being observed.
Because this particular panopticon is being used for teens–some of whom aren’t there as a punishment–the security isn’t necessarily strict. It’s more of a halfway house or a government care facility for troubled youth.
Anais has a Scottish voice, complete with just the right amount of Scottish slang. The narration is probably my favorite part of the book; Anais’s voice is wonderful. She’s an authentic teenager who has been through a whole lot of shit and it shows. She’s messy, angry, and a bit of a troublemaker. But she’s really a good kid who has just been given a crap life–she’s also imaginative, soft-hearted, and honest. I fell in love with her within the first few pages. She doesn’t have any hopeful ideas about what the people in charge want her life to be like–she knows she’s an experiment and she’s always being watched–but it’s in the Panopticon that she finally finds an adult who believes in her and is willing to defend her.
This article from The Scotsman talks about Fagan’s own sixteen years of living in government care, and Fagan tells The Scotsman a bit about what it was like. Fagan has been where Anais is (generally speaking) which is probably why The Panopticon doesn’t come across as the least bit cliché. Fagan knew exactly what she was writing about.
This isn’t a cheery book–it does contain some scenes that could be potential triggers–but it is so, so good. The Panopticon reminds us that people like Anais exist and we’re doing them a huge disservice by pretending they’re invisible or ignoring them or treating them like their lives are a foregone conclusion. But it doesn’t read like a public service announcement or a sermon; it’s edgy and beautifully written, and Anais is one of the best narrators I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.