24th Apr 2012
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
The Panopticon is the début novel by Scottish poet and writer Jenni Fagan, and my favourite novel so far this year.
It’s the first-person story of Anais Hendricks, a fierce and irrepressible narrator with a vivid and original voice, like going on a joyride with Irvine Welsh‘s teenage sister while off your face on amphetamines.
Aged fifteen, Anais finds herself in a police car, on her way to the Panopticon, a detention centre for chronic young offenders. Across town, there’s a policewoman in a coma and Anais has been found with blood on her school uniform. And although she’s committed all sorts of other crimes, when it comes to this one, she’s adamant that she’s innocent.
Fucked or fucked over by almost every adult she’s ever met, Anais’ life so far has been a never-ending cycle of care and foster homes. But for the most part, she’s blase and upbeat about the violence and despair she’s witnessed; Anais is a survivor, and she’s smart and funny with it.
Sharp, intuitive and self-assured, she’s upfront about her sporadic escapes into drugs and sex, and honest about her fears of the mysterious and sinister Experiment that track her every move.
Although tentative at first, she soon forms a makeshift family with her fellow inmates at the Panopticon, but the authorities are watching and waiting. And if Anais makes one wrong move, she’s had it.
Her predicament and personality alone are enough to keep you turning the pages, but as you might expect from the subject matter, there’s a dark heart to The Panopticon.
Parts of it are uncomfortable and potentially triggering, with prostitution, rape, self-harm, animal and child abuse all playing their part. But Anais has seen it all before, facing extreme situations with bravado and defiance. And those are at her moments when she’s at her most heartbreaking.
Crude, honest and often hilarious, she is impulsive and unpredictable but always believable, coming out with all sorts of caustic put-downs, wry observations and classic claims:
“[The word] vagina sounds like a venereal disease. Or like the name for some snobby rich German countess’ daughter; her entry into society would be announced in some glossy magazine, and underneath it would read…Vagina Schneider at the débutante ball, wearing an electric blue Vera Wang – a true glory to behold.”
Anais subverts stereotypes and the judgements of those around her. Acknowledging that the authorities expect a uniform of ponytail, gold jewellery, tracksuit and fake tan, Anais is nostalgic for the romance and glamour of bygone eras, inadvertently showing her softer, more sensitive side with her secret fantasies of painting in Paris:
“I adore dragonflies. I adore the sea, the moon, the stars, vintage Dior and old movies in black and white. I adore girls with tits and hips and class and old men in suits who have that dignified look about them.”
Although the system may be broken, Anais is sticking to her story, and The Panopticon is as memorable and exhilarating as its narrator. Published next week by William Heinemann, you can pre-order the hardback for £8.44, or pre-order the Kindle edition for £8.04.
Recommended for: Anyone who loves an underdog, or who has ever had cause to rage against the machine; rebels, delinquents and daredevils of all ages will love Anais’ strength, boldness and bravery.
Other recommended reading: For more rebel girls in over their heads, read Colleen Curran‘s Whores on the Hill, Bella Bathurst‘s Special, or Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth when it comes out later this summer. Or for another stubborn, defiant and memorable narrator, try Nell Leyshon‘s The Colour of Milk.