The Panopticon, Jenny Fagan

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Picture credit: from Jenni Fagan’s blog

Fifteen year-old Anaïs Hendricks hates everything.  We first meet her on the back seat of a police car, her hands cuffed, her skirt blood-stained.  She’s known to the police and the courts as a troublemaker. She is suspected of attacking and seriously injuring a police officer.  The car delivers Anais to The Panopticon, a facility for housing troubled teenagers, which has at its centre a sinister watchtower from which inmates are observed at all times.  Other inmates stare at her from the windows.  “I don’t want tae have tae fight,” Anaïs thinks.  She doubts that she’s going to make it to sixteen.

So far, so tale-of-adolescent-anomie, you might think, but does this book have a wonderful surprise in store for you.  Jennie Fagan’s astonishingly good debut novel is a stylish and affecting combination of headlong energy and bristling truth, filled with blazing outrage at the society that fails to protect the vulnerable but are quick to ostracize the products of this failure.

Fagan is open about her own history in care, and no doubt her personal experience contributes to the novel’s searing realism, but it is not just clear-eyed accuracy that makes this such a magical read.  Written in a lively, Scottish street slang, Fagan masterfully portrays the tight-knit social structure Anaïs and her contemporaries inhabit, while also evoking an eerie sense of alienation from a world ostensibly like ours, but darkly dissimilar in deeply disturbing ways.  She skilfully threads dreams, drug trips and psychotic hallucinations through the grim reality of Anaïs’ existence with matter-of-fact directness.  Although Fagan depicts lives so fucked-up by abandonment and exploitation that social disaffection and drugs become necessary tools for survival, her tone never descends to self-pity or condescension.

Fagan’s bracing voice is a treat, and her command of her material is faultlessly self-assured, but the shimmering heart of the novel is Anaïs herself.  Damaged but undefeated, Anaïs is sassy, violent, unpredictable and altogether fascinating.  Quick to protect those around her, she has no one to protect her against her own self-destructive tendencies and as she cannot remember anything about the incident that left the police officer in a coma, her future looks increasingly bleak… Dreaming of a different life, desperate to discover her own roots, she has a terrifying suspicion that she was made in a laboratory, that her whole life is nothing but an experiment.  Paranoid, fierce, intelligent and resourceful, she will win you over before you have time to even spell out anti-social.

The Panopticon is a thoroughly satisfying read, delivering a fascinating insight into the care system, and introducing us to both a captivating leading lassie, and a deftly original author.

Other links:  Janni Fagan’s site ; Guardian review (Lucy Ellman)

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