Review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

Posted August 26, 2013 by in Book Reviews / 15 Comments

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.

Review: The Panopticon by Jenni FaganThe Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
Published by Hogarth on July 23, 2013
Genres: Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 304
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.

Highly recommended.

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  • This sounds really good. I love a good, non-cliched, troubled teen story. Somewhat in the same vein as White Oleander, maybe? If you’ve read that?

    • I LOVE White Oleander. It’s a bit along those lines, yes. The narrator of The Panopticon may even be better, sassier.

  • This is the second review for this I’ve seen, and it keeps throwing me because I went to high school with a Jenny (with a Y) Fagan. As for the book, I’m still undecided.

  • litandlife

    I’ve got this for review so I just scanned your review but definitely got enough of your thoughts to make me very excited to pick it up!

  • I don’t know why I can’t decide whether or not to read this one. What is my problem?? Jeez.

  • I loved this book so hard. I’ve been pushing it on everyone I know despite understanding that some of them will probably hate it.

  • kay

    Okay; the more and more I read reviews of this one, the more excited I get about pulling it off my shelf! I studied panopticons a few years back, too, so I’m definitely intrigued to see how the concept is used in this novel.

  • That is a great review, Heather. I enjoyed it also as I read along and I believe you when you say it is a good book. 🙂 Profound in its own way and I should love to read it.

  • Oh no! I have this on my to-read list and White Oleander was one of those books that I put down because I hated it so much! Oh well, I’ll read this anyway 🙂

    • Why did you hate White Oleander? The stories themselves are nothing alike…the only similarity is the orphaned teenager having to pretty much survive on her own.

      • Whew. Okay, good. White Oleander was so tediously descriptive and I couldn’t stomach it. I actually thought that I would enjoy the movie based on the cast but made it as far into the movie as I did the book. On the positive side, the movie was EXACTLY how I pictured it.

        Of course, I also can’t get past the first chapter of The Book Thief, so maybe it’s me….

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  • I’ll have to add this one to my list. I’ve seen it a bunch of places, now I just need to get my hands on it.

  • Thanks for that definition – I had no idea what the title of this book meant until you explained it!

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