Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan


A girl fights against the system.

Fifteen year old Scot Anais Hendricks has for her entire life been in and out of foster care save for a few peaceful years as the adopted daughter of an eventually murdered prostitute. The novel begins when Anais, covered in blood, is unable to recall whether she had anything to do with an assault upon a policewoman now lying in a coma. The suspicious police bring her to the Panopticon, a home for troubled teens.

After that exciting opening, the plot sort of fizzled, and never really built to any insights about the foster care system or underage crime or even who assaulted the policewoman. Anais waits to be charged, meanwhile beating up a lot of wankers and taking a lot of drugs. She dreams of a normal family, especially a loving mother. The remarkable thing about this novel is the voice of Anais and it was the voice of Anais that sucked me in and wouldn’t let go. She is like a feral child striking back against anyone who tries to control her. However, she is good hearted and fights for the underdog.

The Panopticon is a prison where the doors don’t shut and the warden can see anywhere at all times. This conceit (which is a good one) never quite got fully utilized. The troubled teens who live at the Panopticon manage to get into all types of serious mischief in the facility and apparently no one in any position of responsibility is able to observe them, let alone do anything about it. In fact, to American eyes, the idea that the Panopticon is some sort of reform school is laughable. The kids come and go freely and have sufficient state allowances for Friday night dates and clothes. Some of the girls (and boys) work as prostitutes. The police threaten to send Anais to the secure unit, where (get this) you may not get a weekend pass.

One unique element of the book was the Scottish dialogue, which worked well for me, as the strange words didn’t obscure the meaning, but added atmospheric touches. Ultimately I suppose this novel falls into the category of the girl heroine struggling against the monolithic state oppressor except this girl heroine has underage sex and drops acid. All the same you root for her success.

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