Tag Archives: Edinburgh International Book Festival

Book Review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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’]

panopticon

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.

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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.

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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).

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Book Club Read: Tigers in Red Weather by Liza Klaussman

The UK cover of Tigers in Red Weather

The UK cover of Tigers in Red Weather

I think I first heard of Liza Klaussman’s Tigers in Red Weather last year, when Klaussman was at the Edinburgh book festival and this was up for Anobii’s First Book Award. It immediately caught my eye – first of all, the cover is stunning. It already seems like an iconic book cover to me, and after reading the book I think it strikes the mood just perfectly. I prefer the UK cover to the US edition, which seems a bit staged to me, and doesn’t quite capture the effortless glamour of the UK one.

The novel is part family saga, part murder mystery, set after the Second World War in the idyllic Martha’s Vineyard. Nick and her cousin Helena open the novel in a heatwave, dancing and drinking on their lawn as they look forward to their lives restarting. Helena will be setting off to LA to live with a new husband, while Nick is awaiting the return of her husband Hughes from duty. From the offset, the book is sultry, you can feel the heat and imagine the moonlit nights and salty air and feel the women’s excitement.

The novel is split into five sections, each told from the point of view of one member of Nick and Helena’s family, flashing back and forward in time, spanning across several decades and continents, always returning to the same focal point. The centre of the family is the house in Martha’s Vineyard, Tiger House, and the narratives centre particularly around the events of one summer when Nick’s daughter, Daisy, and Helena’s son, Ed, stumble across a young Hispanic maid who has been brutally murdered.

Circa 1950s - Couple walking with picnic basket on beach - this is how I imagine Nick and Hughes...

Circa 1950s – Couple walking with picnic basket on beach – this is how I imagine Nick and Hughes…

We start with Nick, who is intriguing, smart and intelligent, but also bored and prone to acts of defiance, such as strutting about her rather prim and proper neighbourhood in a revealing swimsuit, or getting drunk with the band she has hired to play at a party she is hosting. She describes her frustration at the husband the War returns to her, so different and distant from the man he was before, spending her days lazing around waiting for him to come home from work, worrying about what meals to make. Then her daughter, Daisy (then 13), picks up the narrative, skipping through a summer when she is intent on winning the junior tennis tournament and spends days in training. It is also the summer when she will first experience love and heartbreak, and this summer will have devastating effects on her life many years later.

I found Helena’s part the most difficult to deal with – she does not have an easy life in L.A. and I found myself wanting more for her, and desperately wanting her to wake up to the realities of life. When it is Hughes’ turn to pick up the thread, we see him in London during the War, at New Year, at a time when home, and Nick, seem very far away. I loved hearing his side of the story, but it is Ed’s narrative that you really wait on – he is like a shadow throughout the book, people are constantly accusing him of creeping up on them, and when he is caught in compromising situations, he describes his interest in people and their misdemeanors as ‘research’. He is a troubled character, feeling the effects of his mother’s passivity, having grown up watching his father as he obsessively collects film and photographs of an ex-girlfriend in the hope of making a film about her. There is something brooding about him that seems to hang over the family.

I didn’t appreciate at the beginning that there would be concurrent narratives from different points of view and I really enjoyed it as it gives you each member of the family’s side of the story. At the end, though, there are still mysteries, family secrets that are best left undiscovered. It highlights the connections that hold a family together that outsiders aren’t privy to, and that even at the worst of times a family will always look out for their own.

The US cover for Tigers in Red Weather

The US cover for Tigers in Red Weather

It is certainly a book that will stay with you. I was chatting about this with my Book Club friends at the beginning of the week and we all loved it. We all discussed how lovely it would be to drink gin cocktails from jam jars and laze on the beach. There are elements of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night in the glamour that surrounds Nick and Hughes, the appeal they have to others and the bond between them. With a little bit of Daisy and Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby in there too I imagine (and of course Klaussman gives Nick and Hughes’ daughter the name – not a coincidence I imagine). And the summer seaside glamour of Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan is also in there too, and the complexities of adult relationships, their children trying to comprehend the secrets between a husband and wife. It’s a heady book to get wrapped up in, and I really cannot wait to see what Liza Klaussman comes up with in her next book.

First Book Award

The other nominees for the Anobii First Book Award in 2012 can be seen here. There are some great books on the list, many of which I would love to read. That said, there are also several that I have never heard of and I wonder if being nominated for the Award has much influence on the visibility of the books and if sales go up much. The Award was won last year by Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan which I’ll admit is one I hadn’t heard of before.

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The First Book Award is now sponsored by ebooks by Sainsburys – the nominees for this years’ award are listed here, with the announcement of the winner to be made after voting closes on the 14th of October. If you want to vote, you can do so here. There are 42 books on the list and I have to admit that I haven’t read any of them so I won’t be voting this time round. There are quite a few that I haven’t heard of – although I have heard that The Fields by Kevin Maher (about a 13-year-old Irish boy growing up in Dublin in the ’80s) is very good – I actually heard Kevin Maher talking and reading from the book at the Edinburgh Book Festival and thought it sounded dark but funny too so will hopefully read that soon.

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