Review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon (Get a copy here) takes place in contemporary Scotland and follows a young girl, Anais, who is in the foster care system. Her world is just going to hell. She’s been tossed into a care unit with other children in the system. Anais has been in the system her whole life. She’s been in and out of the criminal system for drug abuses and brawling. Her only respite was with her adoptive mother who has died, and, now, Anais is being accused of attacking a police officer who is comatose.

It’s pretty clear throughout the novel that Anais is struggling. She doesn’t open up to people, and she certainly doesn’t trust others. She’s pretty convinced that “the experiment” is watching her, manipulating the world around her and the people in her life with the goal of hurting her as much as possible and observing her reactions. Anais suffers from panic attacks and sometimes sees flying cats. The world she lives in is unstable, and she really just wants to run as far as she can.

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

Fagan’s novel is an interesting, detailed story with some fantastic elements.

The story is told in a stream-of-consciousness-like narrative with a vernacular that is reminiscent of Mark Twain’s writing style. Here’s an example:

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.

The interesting thing about the narrative style is that the format is so well-balanced that the thoughts, and in particular the hallucinations that Anais has, are smoothly transitioned. It’s so easy to make a stream of consciousness style story jump around and feel erratic. Fagan manages to make the story flow together naturally. Even when the events jump or when the hallucinations start, the story doesn’t feel disjointed. It gives a really neat insight into the character’s mind and the feeling of organic thought processes.

The characters are very well thought-out and have carefully crafted emotional profiles and backgrounds. The side characters are interesting and emotionally complex. Fagan takes a lot of time and care in their development. Anais herself is emotionally complex. We see a lot of her internal conflicts and her struggles with her mental state. Not only do we see her debate how she feels about the other characters and events in the story, but we also see, in detail, her paranoia and hallucinations. This is most prominent in Anais’ belief in “the experiment,” a god-like entity she believes sees everything she does and has the power to manipulate her life circumstances to see how she reacts.

The only problem I had with the character development, and really the plot, was in the story’s ending. Anais and her friends take action in the last few pages, spurred on by prior horrific events. Anais’ story continues on and she does some of the things we hear her talking about throughout the novel. While much of this is a resolution to the story, I found it unsatisfying. I thought the ending didn’t seem to fit with the emotional connections that are built throughout the story, and Anais doesn’t get any resolution with the child care system itself. It was by no means a bad ending, and, while it was foreshadowed, I found it to be a bit disconnected from where the story seemed to be going.

Overall, I thought the read was dynamic and impressively complex.

On a rating scale, I give it a 4-4.5.

Note: This book does contain drug use and sexual assault


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