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Surveillance for the Untethered:The Panopticon

The PanopticonThe 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 FlowersThe 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.

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Dystopian Survival

Cover of "The Hunger Games"

Cover of The Hunger Games

I once heard a comment that Lord of the Flies was like, Gone, but in Gone they get to eat people too. Ah, the horrors of dystopian futures! Are some older novels no longer timeless?

The sensation of The Hunger Games had me intrigued. I avoided reading it for a while in case fighting to the death proved too gory for my delicate constitution. However, once I started I couldn’t stoop. While I didn’t read the three books in quick succession, I did finish each of them in one sitting. The chapters always ended in such a way that I was lured into starting the next. I am someone who has from a young age enjoyed the idea of post-apocalyptic or chaotic worlds (Robert O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah, for instance) and Suzanne Collins didn’t disappoint. However,  I did feel that she had in some ways created a pastiche of ideas that had been used before. As I was reading, the following stories quickly came to mind:

  • Hatchet (Gary Paulson) and My Side of the Mountain (Jean George) both detail surviving in the wild. My concerns about gore in The Hunger Games were dismissed when I realised the bulk of the time in the arena is spent  finding food, shelter and water, and hiding from danger. Ultimately, The Hunger Games is an old fashioned survival story.
  • Tomorrow when the War Began – John Marsden. A 1990s YA war series about a group of teenagers in country Australia fighting to survive against the ruling army. Filled with weapons, danger, hunger and refugees. Is Ellie no longer bold enough to be a contemporary heroine?
  • The famous American gothic short story The Lottery by Shirley Jackson describes  villagers being selected for a gruesome fate.
  • The cult Japanese movie Battle Royale (this one is according to my husband). Based on his descriptions, among other things the ‘giant clock’ in Catching Fire seems to resemble the destruction patterns in Battle Royale.

All this being said, I did enjoy the series and thought that movie was excellent. I only watched the movie this past weekend which is partly why I am inspired to write this blog today. The contrast between the Captial and District 12 was stunning to see. I did not expect the fashions in the Capital to resemble the ostentatious couture of the French Revolution and I was surprised that Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna was not more flamboyant! The Victorian poverty and dull colours in District 12 also added to the story. While both locations were described well in the novels, I felt that Suzanne Collins was not always convincing enough with the setting and SF elements. For example, some miracles of futuristic science and medicine seemed to solve plot problems too easily, while other storylines grew only because what you would imagine to be a simpler discovery was not yet made. There didn’t seem to be a pattern with the names either and it was not clear why certain people had Latin names and others did not.

My favourite of the three books is the third, Mockingjay. It is a darker book with cat and mouse elements. Some people I have spoken to found this book too unnerving but I found it was a nice break from the first two which had somewhat similar plots.

One other successful YA novel set in a dystopian future is Hollowland by Amanda Hocking. In a USA ravaged by war, the zombie threat means survivors are placed in secure facilities. Vigilantes and religious cults have bunkered down and stockpiled arms.  Remy is separated from her brother and, carrying a family secret, she travels across the country to find him. I found this novel to be convincing throughout, even with the random sounding inclusions of a pop star and a tame lion. It is a little short at 290 pages but it is sharp throughout. Hocking has avoided padding out the story – a skill by which all authors should abide. Hollowland should have a wider reputation than it currently does. It is only available as an ebook so this may be why.

Similar YA  dystopian books at the top of my to read list:

And two more, perhaps suited to adults:

If you have any more suggestions please get in touch.