So, I’ve read a lot of books that have left me speechless this year. That’s both good and bad, I suppose. Mainly, I’m still surprised at how shocked a book can leave me. The Panopticon left me utterly stunned, uncomfortable, and smiling. An odd mixture, for sure.
Anais is 15, covered in blood, and on her way to The Panopitcon. That’s a prison-like place (home for wayward children) that allows no privacy. You can be seen from anywhere at all times. Anais is suspected of having more than a little to do with a cop in a coma. She’s had a tough life – born in a psychiatric hospital, no family that she knows of, 30+ foster homes in 15 years, drugs, sex, and just general delinquency. This is her story.
Jenni Fagan has written an explosive debut novel. And she’s been racking up the literary awards ever since the book’s release in her native United Kingdom – she’s Scottish. I’d describe my reading experience as akin to lying on a bed of nails. For some it will be nothing but uncomfortable pain, but for others, there’s an opportunity to profoundly change your understanding of the social work system, kids lost in the system, or even your own life.
Fagan’s writing is mostly dialogue. Scottish dialogue, so it takes a bit of warming up to for the non-Scottish reader. The kids in this story are brash, blunt, and their language, lives, and loves are extremely colorful. Violently colorful. Drugs are used frequently and sex is a fact of life no matter the age. In fact, I’m not certain Anais was ever completely sober for longer than a few pages. A good portion of the novel reads like an acid trip, literally. And there’s a rape scene that will level you. Not for the feint of heart, not even close. I took a shower immediately after finishing.
Beyond the gruesome, what really shines through is how amazing these kids are – Anais especially – who have had the most fucked up lives ever. They are smart, funny, loving, and lost in a system they will probably never escape. It’s absolutely enraging. Reading The Panopticon will make you think twice about the next juvenile offender you instantly write off during the 6 o’clock news. A very powerful book, if you let it be.
The only complaint I really had was the end. And I loved the end which makes my complaint seem ridiculous. But when I stepped back and thought about how Anais’s story wrapped up, it felt a bit odd and out of place. A bit too easy and too happy. I wonder, though, how much of that conclusion can actually be trusted when told by a very wasted, generally unreliable narrator? A book well-worthy of an in depth discussion.
If you’d like to experience The Panopticon for yourself, just fill out this form to win your very own copy! Giveaway winner will be announced on August 13th. US residents only, unfortunately. Good luck! Update: Congrats to The Book Wheel on winning!
Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher (Hogarth) for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. Visit the other tour stops here!
About the Author:
JENNI FAGAN was born in Livingston, Scotland. She graduated from Greenwich University and won a scholarship to the Royal Holloway MFA. A published poet, she has won awards from Arts Council England, Dewar Arts and Scottish Screen among others. She has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize. She is currently the new Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University. The Panopticon is her first novel.