“The Panopticon” by Jenni Fagan – disturbing, brutal, honest, intense novel about a Scottish teenage “delinquent” in “care” trying to live as free a life as she can

The PanopticonI’m embarrassed to admit it, but when I bought it, I thought “The Panopticon” was a  Young Adult, Urban Fantasy, Rites of Passage book: a comfortable read, an escape from reality, an opportunity to bask in a young person’s accomplishments in the face of difficult odds.

So strongly did I have this impression that it took me a couple of chapters to shrug it off and see an entirely adult, brutal, depressing, painfully realistic novel about power and struggle, and the lives of the broken, abused, abandoned and feared young women, that we lock up and keep under scrutiny.

I was mislead because the book had a slightly arty, slightly edgy cover, the main character was a strong, independent fifteen year-old girl and the extract I heard made reference to the stone figures on the gate of the Panopticon moving as she approached.

It seems that my imagination is now so conditioned to the conventions of Urban Fantasy that I took a moving lion metaphor/day-dream literally because it seemed normal. ”

The Panopticon” is about as far from my normal as you can get. It’s about what officialdom would call “children in care” and who are shown here as young people, robbed of childhood, not yet given the privileges of adulthood, and “cared for” by being kept in a Panopticon prison where they can be observed and prevented from disturbing the rest of us. T

he women in the Panopticon are not female Oliver Twists, waiting to be rescued from delinquency by being welcomed into a good middle-class home. They have nothing but the respect they earn from their peers through the notoriety that they gain.

If “The Panopticon” was a PS3 game, it would have Parental Advisory written all over it, because these are not the kind of young women that parents want their kids to spend time with. They swear, fuck, wank, drink, take drugs and smash the people and things around them.

The main character has named herself Anais after the erotica writer Anais Nin because the whore, who was the only woman who ever took her in an looked after her, liked her books. She describes herself as “a girl with a shark’s heart”. She is full of rage that she cannot always contain and which escapes through acts of destruction but she has not lost her compassion for her peers or given up hope for herself.

Very bad things happen to Anais in this book. Brutal, awful things that leave scars on the body and the mind. Things that will break your heart but which Anais does her best not to allow to break her.

Fagan’s writing is powerful enough that you can settle into Anais’ scarred skin and see the world through her eyes. Anais is not looking for pity or campaigning for political change. She accepts the world as it is and seeks to survive without losing too much of herself in the process.

“The Panopticon” is written in Scottish English, filled with terms like didnae and wisnae,  that I often hear but seldom see written down. Actually that’s a good summary of much of this book, it is filled with things I often see but that are seldom written down. The title, Panopticon  literally means “seen by all”. I think Jenni Fagan wants to make us look at how we treat our young and to feel ashamed.

I’ve seen reviews and comments on this book that focus on the “unacceptable” level of swearing and ask “couldn’t this have been written in English?” This stuns me. How does a literate person get to the end of a book like this and have those as the main things they want to say? I’d rather focus on the “unacceptable” truth in this book: that we do not know what to do with our broken young and that what we do do is more to protect us than them. I’m also filled with admiration for Jenni Fagan’s ability to use fiction to make me see reality.

If you’d like to hear Jenni Fagan talking about her writing, click on the SoundCloud link below.

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