The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Robin Stevens
Reviewed by Robin Stevens
Summary: A weird, gorgeous, utterly unplaceable work of fiction that’s hilarious, uplifting, dirty and real, The Panopticon is the world as seen through the eyes of teenage delinquent Anais Hendricks.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: April 2013
Publisher: Windmill Books
ISBN: 9780099558644

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Shortlisted for the James Tait Black Fiction Award 2013

Imagine reading a book set in a Scottish children’s care home. It’s about a violent and a deeply disturbed fifteen year old drug addict who, when she was eleven, found her prostitute foster mother murdered in the bathtub. That’s the set-up of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, and that’s what it’s about – but the funny thing is that whatever you’re picturing in your head right now, and what I was imagining before I sat down to read it, bears absolutely no resemblance to the book Fagan has actually written.

The Panopticon is so much more than it seems on paper. I may have given you a very accurate description of its basic plot, but what this doesn’t convey is the lightness of touch it displays, the brilliant, foul and totally irreverent sense of humour with which it responds to horrors. It’s an unblinking and very real look at the worst aspects of care home life that’s also a soaringly beautiful work of magical realism. This book defies description and it confounds expectations – exactly like its narrator Anais Hendricks.

The Panopticon is the world as seen through fifteen-year-old Anais’ damaged and completely beautiful brain. She is quite simply one of the most unforgettable heroines I’ve ever come across in fiction, with a version of life that is as unique as a fingerprint. As her social worker Angus points out, Anais is so much more than just the long list of crimes on her rap sheet. Although she absolutely is the girl from a string of failed placements who burns down cars and breaks people’s legs (Fagan never pretends otherwise) Anais has her own fierce moral code which she never breaks. She’s a school dropout who dresses in sailor shorts and vintage coats, a drug addict with one of the brightest minds I’ve ever come across.

Fagan’s writing is astonishing. The whole novel is written in heavy Scottish slang – a stylistic choice that, in the hands of a less skilful novelist, could have ruined it. Here, though, it makes perfect sense. This is Anais’ terrible, wonderful world and we are experiencing it just as she does. In language that’s shocking and vibrant we’re shown a mind-bendingly elastic view of reality where subjective human perception is powerful enough to break the rules of physics. Anais spends most of her time escaping from reality on the waves of some kind of illegal high, stepping sideways into realms where walls breathe, iguanas dance and locks laugh at her. Anything is possible in her mind – stone cats can fly, there’s a polar bear hidden in an attic, and faceless, noseless men are watching her every move. She’s obsessed with playing what she calls 'the birthday game', imagining the details of all of the other lives she might have been launched on by an accident of birth.

We meet Anais just after she has been accused of putting a police officer into a coma. The police are convinced that she’s the culprit, but she has no memory of the day on which she supposedly committed the crime. So did she do it? For the first third of the book I hoped passionately that she would be exonerated. But then I realised that it doesn’t matter. Anais has done some terrible (and astonishingly inventive) things, but you believe so firmly in her as a complete, real person that you find yourself forgiving her every one of them. And it’s not just Anais. She’s incredibly well drawn – but so are all the other damaged and addicted delinquent kids she meets in the children’s home she’s placed in as her final chance, the Panopticon.

How sympathetic all of these characters are is a testament to Fagan’s power as an author. You’d write them off if you saw their lives related in a newspaper, or heard about their crimes at third hand, but in this book you absolutely believe in their essential goodness and humanity. The teenage experiences Anais is forced to go through have, on the face of it, nothing in common with my own – but at the same time I instantly felt that I knew her and cared about her. I suspect that it would be hard not to.

On the strength of this book, Fagan more than deserves her place on the recent Granta list of young British novelists. She’s a major talent whose work should be widely recognised. The Panopticon is a weird, gorgeous, utterly unplaceable work of fiction that’s hilarious, uplifting, dirty and real. I fell in love with it from the first page and then struggled for weeks to put my feelings about it into words. This review is so much less than it should be. You’ll just have to read the book for yourself to find out what I'm talking about.

For more wonderful writing from the Granta 2013 list, try White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi. We also have a review of The Sunlight Pilgrims by Jenni Fagan.

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