Pa`nop´ti`con ( noun). A circular prison with cells so constructed that the prisoners can be observed at all times. [Greek panoptos ‘seen by all’]
The premise of the book reminded me at first of Sarah Waters’ Victorian novel Affinity which also features a panopticon prison – I was recalling lectures about this from Uni and that creepy feeling you get when you learn something new that just won’t keep clinging to the back of your mind. Imagine having someone watching you, 24 hours a day.
The novel opens with fifteen-year-old Anais Hendricks on her way to the Panopticon, a care home for young people in rural Scotland somewhere (hidden away, more like). She can’t remember what has happened to her, but is told that she attacked a police officer who now lies in a coma. She is kept there with other young offenders and becomes part of a pseudo-family, the young adults forming bonds, looking after each other in ways that their care workers and parents are unable to do. Anais feels herself to be some part of an experiment, that not only is she being watched but her actions are being judged. The irony is that Anais is not being watched closely enough. She has spent her life drifting from one foster home to care home to another her whole life, with the most stable period in her life living with prostitute foster mother Rachel and living amongst her clients drug-dealer friends. For me, it seems that her obsession with an experiment hinges on her need to believe that there is some purpose for all that she is going through, that it is not all just random. She cannot believe herself to be insignificant.
I loved the idea of the game Anais plays – the ‘birthday game’ – where she invents a different beginning for herself, born into a rich family, or born into a family living in Paris, or born into a ‘normal’ family. The book breaks your heart in many ways. Anais seems so grown up and street-smart, although there are instances, and one particularly upsetting thing that happens to her, that show how vulnerable she is, how in need of proper care she is. Anais has been let down by everyone, her mother, her foster parents, her carers and care workers. It is a sorry depiction of what faces so many young people and how they must struggle by themselves to forge their own future. Anais is seen as a write-off, any more offences and she’ll be in juvenile detention and then, most likely, prison.
The characters around Anias all have their issues as well but none of them are quite as fleshed-out as Anais. Of course, Anais has to be something special to be the focus of this book – she is intelligent, she dresses differently, wearing vintage clothing and retro make-up so she doesn’t look like your ‘stereotypical’ young offender. From the blurb she is described as ‘Smart, funny and fierce, […] a counter-culture outlaw, a bohemian philosopher in sailor shorts and a pillbox hat.’ It makes her cool which annoyed me a little – there was a falseness to her character, as if it was intentional to set her apart from others, and meant she was above the others around her and that the fate that had befallen her was an injustice. It is, of course, but no more so than anyone else sharing their time with her in the Panopticon.
I really enjoyed this book, I thought it was intelligent, and the dialogue was in Scots so I loved the dialect of it. There is a lot of swearing in it, but you become sort of immune to it, you put up a barrier between the words and it makes you numb to them – you begin to accept it, a sad mirroring of how the young offenders become immune to all the bad things they witness. As I said, I enjoyed the book but on writing my review I find myself getting quite fired up by it, incensed by the story and what it says about our society, and our care systems. They are distinctly lacking.
There were elements of this that I think J.K. Rowling was trying to capture in The Casual Vacancy and her character Krystal Weedon who had a tough time of it with school, looking after her malnourished and neglected toddler brother and trying to keep her junkie mother off the drugs. The Panopticon says a lot more in a more interesting way and it is almost less depressing for it. Anais is fighting back, trying to reclaim her life and live out opportunities that never seemed to be available for her.
The Panopticon was included in the Anobii First Book Award nominees in 2012 (which I talked about in my review of Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman) and was announced last week as a nominee for the Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Awards 2013 in the First Book category. You can see the rest of the nominees over on Creative Scotland’s website, although I am disappointed to see that Fagan’s book didn’t win its category.
And, not forgetting that Jenni Fagan was on Granta’s Best of Young British Novelists earlier this year (full list of authors here), an accolade which comes but once a decade. Fagan is an author to watch out for, and I am sorely disappointed I missed her reading at the Edinburgh Book Festival this year with Sarah Hall and Evie Wyld (also on the Granta list).