The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

panopticonThis turned out to be a difficult book to review, because it was so amazing.  I think it won’t be for everyone, but it’s one of my favorite books of the year, easy.

Thanks first to Giraffe Days and publisher Hogarth, New York for giving away a copy of this book.

The Panopticon is the first novel for Scottish author Jenni Fagan, who was recently named one of the Best of Young British Novelists Under 40 by Granta magazine.  This book has been shortlisted for the Desmond Elliott Award, the James Taitt Black Prize, and the Dundee International Book Prize.

And while I may not be familiar with any of these awards, here’s what I have to say about this book: WOW.

This book tells the story of 15 year old Anais* Hendricks, who has been bounced around foster homes and institutions from birth (23 placements before the age of seven, and a recently murdered foster mother).  She’s been arrested for the beating of a police officer, who is in a coma.  Anais can’t remember if she did it, but she has no defense, a history of criminal behavior, and blood all over her skirt — and the system certainly isn’t interested in helping her.

She lands in The Panopticon, a juvenile institution that’s her last step before prison.  A panopticon is a type of prison building with a watchtower at its center, where all of the inmates can be watched at all times.

Anais believes she’s part of an experiment, created in a lab and watched by faceless men.  The Panopticon is just one more place where she can be watched.  Everything’s a trap.

I’m an experiment.  I always have been.  It’s a given, a liberty, a fact.  They watch me.  Not just in school or social work reviews, court, or police cells – they watch everywhere.  They watch me hang by my knees from the longest bough of the oak tree; I can do that for hours, just letting the wishes drift by.  They watch me as I outstare the moon.

You’ll love this book if you like reading about broken characters, troubled teens, anyone who’s lost everything and has to start every day from the ground up.  And yet there is so much hope in Anais, and so much poetry in the way this book is written.

This was a beautiful, heartbreaking story and Anais is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever read.  I just wanted to crawl inside this book and make her world better.  But I couldn’t.

How do you review a book like that?

This excerpt doesn’t really reflect the rest of the book very well, but it does provide an opening scene:

The policewoman lays her hand on my arm.  She’s dealt with me before.  She cannae see my nails are gouged into my fist.  I didnae even notice until I uncurled my fingers and saw red half-moons on my palm.

I hate.  Her face.  The thick hair on his neck.  I hate the way the policeman turns the wheel.  What is worse though, is this nowhere place.  There’s nae escape.  The cuffs chink as I smooth down my school skirt – it’s heavily spattered with bloodstains.

We drive by a huge stone wall, up to a gateway framed by two tall pillars.  On the first there’s a gargoyle – someone’s stubbed a fag out in his ear.  I glance up at the other pillar, and a winged cat crouches down.

Look at it!  A real stone winged cat!  It’s stunning.  His wings would be a couple meters long if he unfolded them, and there’s yellow lichen furring his shoulders.  I’ll draw him later, alongside my two-headed flying kitten, and a troop of snails on acid – wearing top hats, with spirally eyes and jagged fucking teeth.

A sign for The Panopticon is nestled in trees with conkers hanging off of them.  A leafy arc dapples light onto the road; it flickers across my face, and in the car window my eyes flash amber, and then dull.

The Panopticon looms in a big crescent at the end of a long driveway.  It’s four floors high, two turrets on either side and a peak in the middle – that’ll be where the watchtower is.

This book is not an easy read, or a quick one.  For one thing, the Scottish dialect is heavy, and it won’t be for everyone.  I love reading in dialect, especially Scottish, so this book was every bit worth the effort.  I hate when books get “Americanized” (Bridget Jones, for example) and this book hasn’t been — and I hope it never is.  If you don’t want to make the effort to understand Anais’ world, don’t.

If you mind profanity this also won’t be a book for you.  Personally, I loved the rawness and power of the language Fagan uses.  That’s real life, or Anais’ life at least.  It’s not pretty.  At all.

This book moves slowly at times – it’s really about the day to day life in this facility.  I found it incredibly moving and sad – these young people have everything going against them, and yet there are people in their lives who care for them, and want them to succeed.

Is this a tough read?  Yes – but you’ll be glad you did.

I want to share this quote I found on Fagan’s website, from

If you finish this book without wanting to shout for Anais, without wishing to send a prayer or quantum truckload of solace to every kid you’ve just met and, moreover, to their real counterparts out there – start digging. When you find your heart again, beat it till it does.

* I learned from an NPR interview with the author, it’s pronounced “eh-nay” if you’re interested. I hate not knowing how to pronounce character names. Great interview with Fagan.

  7 comments for “The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

  1. October 26, 2013 at 3:19 pm

    I’m so pleased you loved this! I bought it about a year ago and have read nothing but hesitant comments at best ever since so I’ve just left it languishing on my shelf. Now I’m kicking myself! I’m not always a fan of reading in Scottish dialect after reading Trainspotting at university (which is almost unintelligible unless you’re reading aloud!) but this doesn’t look at all like that and I’m much more convinced that it will add something to this book now.

    Also, I had no idea that there was an American version of Bridget Jones or that British slang was so different from American that one would be needed…how strange!

    • October 27, 2013 at 8:55 am

      The dialect is challenging but once I got used to things like “isnae” and “umnay” (helps to read aloud) and “ta” meaning thanks, it’s very readable. But I think dialect is fun where some people hate it. I tried Irvine Welsh one time and couldn’t get through it.

      Bridget Jones – I don’t remember how much they did to it, changed “stones” to pounds and so on. Plus the truly horrible cover. I have a copy picked up in the UK so I’m just glad I have the real version.

  2. October 27, 2013 at 5:24 am

    I have heard so many things about this book and yet I’ve stayed away because I’m worried that it could be a tad depressing. But I think you have tipped the scales. Time to add it to my TBR list. Thanks!

    • October 27, 2013 at 8:43 am

      Thanks for commenting! No question, it’s very dark, and will definitely get to you, especially when you think how many kids are in the same situation … but I think dark is worth reading when done well, and this is done very well.

  3. October 28, 2013 at 8:18 am

    I have to admit that I only skimmed your review because I have this one waiting on my shelf 😉 I’m looking forward to getting to it!

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