Fifteen-year old Anais Hendricks is smart, funny and fierce, but she is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met. Sitting in the back of a police car, she finds herself headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders where the social workers are as suspicious as its residents. But Anais can’t remember the events that have led her there, or why she has blood on her school uniform…
Having pre-conceived ideas of what a novel is about before you read is usually helpful. In fact most books go out of their way to let you know something about themselves. If you’re going to buy a book on impulse it’s usually the cover that catches your eye, and then the blurb, and maybe the opening few pages. Finding out by word of mouth relies on someone giving their own version of the book, which isn’t always a universal version.
When The Panopticon was first being one person (Simon) thought it was sold as having a heavy science fiction thread with the experiment and the watchful panopticon in the young offenders home that Anais (the main character) has been sent to. I though knew it was going to be a literary novel with some SFFness to it but I wasn’t expecting what it turned out to be.
We meet Anais, as it says in the blurb, on her way to Panopticon but we follow a character who is presented as an outsider. She describes herself as an experiment in the prologue. She might be but if you strip away that idea away as a safety valve of an institutionalised teenager you have the same novel but a prism is missing. It’s very much a novel about reality, how it forms around us, how we protect ourselves from others versions of it and that we can’t always appreciate what we have.
Every year Anais allows herself a fantasy thinking about an alternative life, one where she wasn’t born in a petri dish (or was it a test tube she isn’t sure), but this fantasy of a happier life is always knocked back by the reality of her life. The people that she hangs with get her into trouble. She ends up fighting to save friend and she misses someone who drags her back down enough to see him again when she really should move on.
It’s the core of Anais that makes this a book worth reading. She does make mistakes, she does have issues with reality, and she copes with the help of drugs. But given the circumstance she’s in she hopes for a better life. She keeps hope her around like the box that Pandora opened.
Fagan cleverly lets the reader make up their own mind about several of the people in Anais’s life. She is an unreliable narrator in some regards. She’s a fantasist and at the start she’s not sure if the blood on school uniform is that a policewomen who is in a coma. But when it comes to seeing other people she seems bang on. She describes them but their actions are more telling. Like Helen her social worker who things that doing ‘good’ deeds makes her a good person but as Anais doesn’t conform to her idea of a reformed character she drops her. Her boyfriend Jay leads her on is one leads to one of the most gut wrenching scenes.
You also have more positive relationships like the one she has with Angus, who keeps seeing her in a positive light. Her fast friendships with John, Shortie, Tash and other children of the home show different sides to Anais and how those around her effect her. They also demonstrate a range of people who end up in care.
Ultimately though this is Anais’s story and she’s going to tell it in her own unique way.
The Panopticon is one of those novels which you can’t describe as enjoyable but definitely leaves you feeling grateful you’ve read it. It’s a story that is dark, but filled with moments of light and hope. Jenni Fagan is unflinching in her descriptions of Anais’s reality. She shows a world of sex, drugs and violence, and it asks you to question your view of reality.
It’ll leave you thinking that you should never assume what leads to someone’s life being as it is. You never really know what they’ve had to deal with.
The Panopticon is the 8th Book Club Choice on The Readers Podcast, which I co-host with the Simon Savidge, and it’s now available in paperback.
Jenni Fagan has also been included in Granta’s 2013 list of bright British novelists.