YA Review: The Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan

Anais Hendricks, 15, is in the back of a police car, headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders.  She can’t remember the events that led her here, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and there is blood on Anais’s school uniform.

Smart, funny and fierce, Anais is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met.

The residents of the Panopticon form intense bonds, heightened by their place on the periphery, and Anais finds herself part of an ad-hoc family there.  Much more suspicious are the social workers, especially Helen, who is about to leaver her job but is determined to for Anais to confront the circumstances of her mother’s death before she goes.

Looking up at the watchtower that looms over the residents, Anais knows her fate: she is part of an experiment, she always was, it’s a given, a fact.  And the experiment is closing in

In dazzling energetic language, The Panopticon introduces us to a heartbreaking young heroine and an incredible assured and outstanding new voice in fiction.

So says the blurb, but I’m not sure I was quite as bowled over as I could have been by this undoubtedly astonishing novel, published earlier this year with great fanfare.  I was interested to see that the book is recommended as “Perfect for readers of Pigeon English”; having just read that for my book club, I can understand the link but, if I were Heinemann, I’d be trying to distance this from Kelman’s Booker-nominated offering.  It may have been up for a prize but, in my view, it failed to do anything of merit in terms of lifting the lid on the social issues faced by young people in deprived areas of the UK.  In contrast, I thought Fagan did a much better job here; the picture she paints of the youth offenders system, and the experiences these young people face, is genuinely chilling.

I started reading The Panopticonwith the idea that it was a young adult novel.  I definitely revised this view over the course of the book.  As someone who works with young people, I’d hesitate to recommend this to anyone under the age of 15 due to the extremely strong language, and very frank discussion of drugs and sexual abuse, which run throughout the story.  That being said, I thought the way in which Fagan approached these contentious issues was unequivocally responsible; at no point were we allowed to think that Anais’ use of illegal substances was without potentially dangerous consequences.  Equally, promiscuous sex or sex for money is almost always linked to danger, unhappiness or even death in the most extreme example.

I can’t say I enjoyed the experience of reading The Panopticon; the whole thing was far too uncomfortable from start to finish.  The tone was occasionally lightened by a little humour as the ‘inmates’ of the home engage in some high jinx but these moments were brief at best, before the threat and menace descended once more.  Perhaps it’s just me but I could have done without constant swearing – I’ve never read a book with so many ‘see-you-next-Tuesday’s, and that includes Trainspotting.  However, I defer to Fagan’s firsthand experience of the Scottish justice system.  She may well just be adding authenticity to her novel.

Over all, I would recommend The Panopticon with caveats on the language and content, and a warning not to expect a ‘fun’ read.  It does expose the seedy nature of the life that may lead young people to end up in institutions like this, and it makes a point about how it’s especially easy for young people with mental health issues to become sucked into criminality.  Get ready to be unsettled.

The Panopticon is published by Heinemann.

Kate Neilan @magic_kitten