The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
Usually I only skim book descriptions as I don’t like too much of the plot to be given away. Often I get the gist correct but with The Panopticon I was way out in left field! I assumed it would bee a sort of dystopian novel for adults set in an experimental care home for wayward teenagers based on Bentham’s all-seeing panopticon model.
Care home yes, dystopian no. However, as Jenni Fagan recently made it on to Granta’s list of authors to watch I was still keen to read this book.
Anais Hendricks has spent her whole life in care. She has lived with a ridiculous number of foster parents and now when she is about to potentially be charged with wounding a police officer she has been given a final opportunity at the above mentioned experimental care home. Cue a reasonable amount of swearing, drugs and sexual references without it ever becoming graphic or gratuitious. Set in the Mid Lothian social care system the language is local to the area with lots of ‘dinnaes‘ and ‘urnays‘ but it was so authentically and cleverly done it didn’t hinder the fluency of my reading.
I was gripped for the first third of this book. Anais’s voice is unique and bold. I’d never before imagined what it would be like to have no known biological relatives and to never have seen anyone who shares your genes. The thought overwhelmed me and made me feel uneasy at the idea of having no one to help tether you to daily life. There is no mystery surrounding why Anais has turned out as she has. She is a product of the most unfortunate of circumstances.
Anais is a believable character but at times she sounds older than her years. It is always hard to write a teenager’s voice. For someone who has spent many years playing truant and being stoned at school, her educated intelligence sat a little uneasy with me at times. I also found the other characters at the care home, both staff and children, were rather interchangeable. Early on the author made an effort to create distinct personalities for all of them but for me, they just merged into one after a while. I thought the social worker going on retreat in India was rather random and nothing significant was really made of it.
I think this sums up how I feel about the book at the moment: not enough was made of potentially fascinating symbolism or ideas. The experimental panopticon care home where they are being watched all the time failed to really develop beyond Anais’s fascination with the tower. Of course, there is a slim chance that she could have been imagining it but I wasn’t intrigued enough to flip back and develop this theory further. The idea of the care system itself being a giant experiment also could have been developed more to leave a powerful impact.
Through Anais’s eyes, Jenni Fagan makes a number of comments about the care system, including a particular passage about the infamous Baby P case in Haringey. Other stories also got to me. The boy put into care due to illness in the family and the girl put into care at the request of her mother saddened me. The comments about the care system were all worthwhile but did not move the plot along. I also began to find some of Anais’s opinions repetitive, along with her birthday game fantasy and dreams of Paris.
Did I like the ending? I’m not sure. I will need some more time to think about it. Regardless, the ending did not affect my grading of this novel. It was a very good first novel and I am glad I read it but I thought there was too much left underdeveloped. Jenni Fagan is an author with much potential and I will read her next novel.
The Panopticon – 3 stars
Thank you to Random House UK, Cornerstone for a copy of the title to review.
Another book about care homes that I own but haven’t read:
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. As with The Panopticon, my initial skim over the product description of this book led me to believe that it was a different genre, historical fiction in this instance. After squinting my eyes and glancing at some reviews it seems to be about a child who has been in care in California. It will be interesting to compare it to The Panopticon.
- The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan – review (guardian.co.uk)
- You: Granta list celebrates fresh crop of British novelists (guardian.co.uk)
- Book Review: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (stacymccain.wordpress.com)
- The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (caitieflum.wordpress.com)