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The Panopticon - review

“I dinnae get people, like they all want to be watched, to be seen, like all the time. They put up their pictures online and let people they dinnae like look at them! And people they’ve never met as well, and they all pretend tae be shinier than they are – and some are even posting on like four sites; their bosses are watching them at work, the cameras watch them on the bus, and on the train, and in Boots, and even outside the chip shop. Then even at home – they’re going online to look and see who they can watch, and to check who’s watching them!”



Title: The Panopticon
Author: Jenni Fagan
Publisher: Windmill Books
Buy it: On Amazon 

Synopsis

Anais Hendricks is being taken into a care home called The Panopticon after being suspected of putting a police officer into a coma. The building is a circular construction where the "clients" are watched by a central watchtower. This is not Anais' first home. She has been in social care all of her life, never knowing her biological parents. She found her first adopted mother dead in a bathtub when she was young and has never been successfully placed since. As the police wait to see whether the police officer in a coma will survive, they are amounting a case to lock Anais into a secure unit until she turns eighteen. But Anais has more to worry about than a police officer she swears she never hurt; her boyfriend is in debt in prison, her best friends in the home are putting themselves in danger, a monk in a mental institution is claiming he saw her being born to a real mother... and, all the time, The Experiment are watching her.


The Good

This book was a stunning read. Writing the synopsis above was unusually hard as the narrative is so richly layered, just saying "a police officer is in a coma" or "Anais found her adoptive mother dead" doesn't quite cut it because there is so much circumstance around it, it feels as though I'm doing the story an injustice by putting it so simply! Getting to the "bare bones" of this story is hard.

There are a lot (and a mean a lot) of hard themes in this book. The care system, mental illness, death, sexuality, sex, love, abuse, drug use, identity, morals, rape. neglect, authority...  All of them, although shocking at times, are written with great relevance, and with great empathy. The characters in this novel are so wholly crafted that as you experience these things with them, you see them through their eyes. This gives a softened edge to some of the themes while it hardens others. They become peaks and troughs in a character's journey and not just set-pieces for gratuitous purposes or simply controversy devices. It was very well done, and I was unable to put the book down at a "trough" as I wanted to leave these characters in a good place at each sitting!

I enjoyed seeing the world through the eyes of the kids in care, but I think what made this novel special was the inclusion of Angus - a social worker at the home who was the only adult to trust the kids, keep their secrets when they weren't dangerous and see the potential in all of them. He was the only adult not to see Anais as "bad". He reminded me a lot of some of the best teachers I ever had: not perfect himself (wearing hole-ridden socks and spending money on music rather than clothes) but just, human... He was able to keep in mind that the kids in care are human too, not just another passing face or case book.

There are likely to be comparisons to Irvine Welsh when it comes to The Panopticon. Jenni Fagan writes her story in a Glaswegian dialect, and drugs, self harm and sex litter the pages as often as a full-stop. However, I felt The Panopticon had far more heart than Trainspotting and the like. Anais, although troubled and confused, has a wonderful presence in the novel, and large amounts of compassion. I knew every step of how she came to be who she is, I felt for her, hoped for her, feared for her.

The Bad

I'm not sure there is any bad to this book, unless you pick it up expecting a chick-flick. This is a book of no-holds-barred grittiness; of urban life at it's hardest. Your expectations will be the only thing that will let this book down for you. I have seen this book marketed as YA in some places, and I think perhaps even the book's own blurb gives that impression. I'm not sure whether I would class it as such... While there are similarities to books such as Junk, I think there are some themes in the Panopticon that are left too open ended and should probably have been "dealt with" in YA. If anyone has read it I would love to hear what you thought about this!

The dialect, although easy to read once you've gotten a feel for it, may be enough to put some people off. But I would urge you to stick with it if you struggle. The story itself is worth your effort.

Overall

The Panopticon was a surprising literary discovery for me. Although I had a curiosity about it, I don't think I expected it to be as good as it was. I will await the next title from Jenni Fagan with anticipation!

Score 
9/10

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