The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
Jenni Fagan's debut novel tells the story of Anais Hendricks, a fifteen year-old Scottish orphan being transferred to a juvenile facility known as the Panopticon. Considered a secure home for teenage offenders, the Panopticon is a prison to its young residents; a circular building observed by an unknown audience in a watchtower, the rooms with doors that can be closed - and locked - by only the staff. At the time of her transfer, Anais has been apprehended by police, found with blood on her skirt while a policewoman lies in a coma. An orphan since her birth, Anais has been moved from home to home with such frequency that she disbelieves a true family ever existed for her; she is an experiment, she tells the reader, created only for the purpose of being observed by people she cannot see – people from whom she is convinced she’ll never escape. As Anais adjusts to the suffocating world inside the Panopticon and grows to know her fellow residents, she’s driven to plan for herself what adults have never been able to provide her with: freedom, and a life of her own. What results is a story, at once heartbreaking and inspiring, that weaves through the dreams and horrors of adolescence in the voice of a fearless young woman determined to come to terms with her own worth. The Panopticon was one of the most shocking and relevant books I've read in a while. Author Jenni Fagan shrouds a very present-day setting with an aura of dystopia, leaving us with a world that feels staggeringly, almost disturbingly true to life. Some elements of the novel take wing on the illusory, such as Anais's determined concept of an experiment watching her. Even the bizarre world of the Panopticon has an air of invention, where children are convicted offenders but attend public schools, have cell phones, and are given clothing allowances. But the figments of The Panopticon are far, very far outweighed by the alarming realities a teenager raised on the streets could face: drug use, prostitution, suicide, murder. Though it’s draped in elements of the surreal, the world of The Panopticon, the struggles of its characters and the narrative's dark wit, cut through to the reader in a way that feels deeply personal, and quite scary. It's amid this beautifully-crafted and harrowing tumult that we find the one unwavering source of optimism: the heroine, fifteen year-old Anais.
Anais Hendricks struck me as women's answer to Holden Caufield. With a penchant for vintage cloths and the starry-eyed dreams of a life in Paris, what makes Anais so unlike the heroines who've come before her is the journey that's lead her to where she is. Despite a life so lacking in familial love that she has actually convinced herself of being spawned in a petri dish, Anais maintains a witty and ultimately positive outlook on life even as she scrambles against the fear of permanent confinement. I can't remember the last time – if ever – I came across such a courageous heroine. She's by no means meek, armed with an arsenal of profanities and a fierceness of spirit that challenges her superiors. What she's seen and done will shock the reader, but what she says and how she thinks will stay with them for much longer. It's amazing that, all the while she's on this journey of loneliness, looking for a place where she can be home, Anais has been at home in her reader's heart all along.
Fagan's writing style is quite fascinating, and beautifully executed. The narrative – which, as well as the subject matter, is not for the modest – is told in Anais's own voice, complete with the Scottish accent that she and those around her possess. The style could be challenging for some, but it's incredibly well achieved and the personal touch that it adds to the novel is irreplaceable. This is the sort of novel that defines how subjective literature can be; some will love it and some, much like with Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, will not see its merits. As for my opinion, I think The Panopticon is a startling and brilliant work from an outstanding new talent in the literary world.
Note: Due to strong language and disturbing subject matter it's my recommendation that The Panopticon requires a mature reader.