Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon is a book I’ve been saving up to read since I first heard about it earlier this year. It was recommended to me by so many people whose judgement I respect that I wanted to wait until I had the proper time to live with it. There is always the possibility that when something has been built up like this that it cannot but disappoint. Such anticipation can be overwhelming.
Nae danger. Fagan has written a book which breaks your heart while simultaneously restoring your faith in the human spirit. The full spectrum of human behaviour is here, there are angels and demons and often they occupy the same space. The central character of 15-year-old Anais Hendricks is moved to yet another care home, this one called The Panopticon, an institution which features a cast of characters who are at times extreme, always live in fear (although they may hide it), who try and claim shared and personal victories where they can, and who are always believable.
Anais may or may not have committed a terrible assault, but it seems she is to be judged with little chance of a fair trial. In The Panopticon the idea of rehabilitation seems like some liberal idealistic dream for those on both sides of the equation. Anais’ life is about survival, and she has hardened herself to the point that not only can she look after herself, or at least it appears that way, but she can also look after those weaker than she is. There is a moral centre to Anais that is heroic. She knows what is right and wrong even as she breaks her own rules, and becomes a champion for those who lack her strength. Fagan has written a hero for our times and if you can’t see that then you’re not looking hard enough.
Rarely have I read a character who moves from childish wonder to world weary cynic, often in the same thought, while remaining coherent. She craves safety and company while at the same time knowing from bitter experience that opening herself up to such possibilities may lead to further hurt, physical and psycological. This could have been one of those novels which wallow in others misery, but with Anais, while she has been abused and abandoned, there is never a sense that she is beaten.
Bonds formed in the teenage years can be brutally intense for even the most hardened soul, especially if the adults who were supposed to look after their wards have let them down. Alone the world is overwhelming, and the slightest camaraderie is embraced and treasured jealously. For those who reside in The Panopticon friendships are made which are not only life changing but absolutely vital. Often this is life at its most raw, and while it is Anais’ life we as readers are privy to, there is no doubt that Isla, Tash, Shortie, John and the others residents (particularly the tortured loner who is Brian) have equally disturbing back stories that have brought them here.
But this is Anais’ story, and she appears wise way beyond her years, a result of having to grow up far quicker than most, and it is always shocking when you are reminded just how young she is. As you get older it is easy to forget how young the first drink, drug or sexual encounter is for some people. But think clearly and everyone will remember something that happened in their life that when viewed from an adult perspective would seem just wrong. As is made abundantly clear in The Panopticon, if we survive these formative years then we have been lucky, not everyone does, but having survived then we shouldn’t forget the lessons we learn.
Another memory from my young life that was jolted when reading was the paranoia of adolescence. Anais believes she is being followed by the shadowy characters of The Experiment who are studying her keenly, horrific monsters straight from an episode of The X-Files, and from a teenager’s imagination. I had forgotten having the more than occasional thought that I was being studied by my family, that my life was a lie, and that I had to be prepared for anything including life on my own. These thoughts, which may seem ludicrous now, have a powerful effect on a young mind.
I’m pleased I waited to read The Panopticon as it is a book which you can’t just dip into or race through. You have to live with it. Fagan forces you to engage emotionally, and the characters in the book will live with you long after you’ve turned the enigmatic final page. As it happens I’m currently reading Toni Davidson’s new novel, My Gun Was As Tall As Me. The last book that touched so keenly upon life in an institution and the accompanying dangers was his Scar Culture and The Panopticon is the equal of that. It is as engaging a novel as I have read all year, and one which rounds off a great year in books, a year where there have been career highs from some of Scotland’s greatest writers. Jenni Fagan has put herself in that company. Next time I’ll be at the front of the cue.