The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan: A book review by Rachel Atkinson

Jenni Fagan’s debut novel The Panopticon tells the story of 15-year-old Anais Hendricks, a seasoned traveller of care-homes in reality, and of the world in her head. Anais finds herself in the back seat of a police car making its way to the Panopticon – a home for young offenders of the professional kind – with blood on her skirt and no recollection of the events that led her there. Are the offenders actually the innocents when faced against the relentless Experiment?

If you’re drawn in by poetic imagery, beautiful prose and pleasant narration, then run for the hills, because this book will make you shiver. The language is gritty; expletives and foul themes dominate much of the text, which can initially be extremely off-putting. The Scottish sociolect was completely foreign to me. Although at first swimming with unpleasant imagery and alien terms, the novel becomes characterised by the language, proving to be crucial in the development of Anais as the narrator. Straightforward and unforgiving, the reader is placed under no false pretences when it comes to the personality of all the characters and their unfortunate lifestyles.

Anais Hendricks is a multitude of things, but none more so than a beacon of hope. She is able to envision a life for herself miles from her world filled with crime, assault, death, disappointment and control, and this ultimately saves her. We can never really know whether what she describes is truth, just as we can never truly know if she is mentally ill, but these factors are irrelevant, as she finally becomes able to break away from the horrors of her past and start anew.

Fagan expertly sheds light upon how children in care spend their lives, migrating from one disappointment to the next, yet finding family in one another; brought together by their circumstances. The reader becomes accustomed to what a normal life in care really is, whilst discovering why they are in care. Can we really blame a child when they have never known any different?

This book is not an entirely enjoyable read, but that’s not to say it doesn’t leave a lasting impact. The characters who aren’t so lucky will stay with you. The Panopticonis certainly poignant, even if you don’t realise it whilst you’re reading.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
Published by William Heinemann Ltd
ISBN: 0434021776