‘The Panopticon’ by Jenni Fagan tells the story of Anais Hendricks, a fifteen-year-old young offender from Scotland who has spent all of her life in care and is more or less constantly in trouble with the police. After being accused of assaulting a police officer who ends up in a coma, she spends time in the Panopticon, an institution for chronic young offenders which takes its name from Jeremy Bentham’s suggested “circular prison with cells so constructed that the prisoners can be observed at all times”.
Anais is clearly a very troubled young girl but she is also so much more than that. Her fiercely spirited character reminded me a little bit of Bessy from ‘The Observations‘ by Jane Harris aided by the heavy Scots dialect used throughout the story. She is likeable, smart and passionate but also highly vulnerable and emotionally fragile given her situation. Drawing on her own experiences of the care system, Fagan manages to capture the conflicting sides of Anais’s character sometimes in the space of just one sentence and paints a vivid picture of the emotions involved.
It is something of an understatement to say that the events of the story are bleak – drugs, prostitution and rape are all dealt with here – and yet it isn’t all completely depressing. Anais’s witty and endearing character foibles such as her obsessions with pillbox hats and living in Paris help make the story a little more uplifting at times. Fagan also has a particular talent for revealing more about Anais not just through what she says but also through what she doesn’t say. I have slightly mixed feelings about the ending but I guess it was never going to be neat and satisfying after such an intense story.
Overall, I was impressed by ‘The Panopticon’ which is definitely among the most original and memorable debut novels I have read this year. Jenni Fagan is one of the most naturally talented young writers out there at the moment and I am looking forward to seeing what else she produces in the future.