TLC Tour: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

13th August 2013


*This book was sent to me by the publisher Hogarth in coordination with TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review.

 Maybe if there’s nobody else that remembers them, then it’s like they didnae happen. They’re just gone then. If they fried out my memories it’d be like I never existed, ’cause there isnae a sister, or aunty, or da who’s gonnae say: Oh, remember when Anais broke her ankle? Remember when she cried on her birthday? Remember when she ate a whole cake and was sick at the back of the bus!

Anais doesn’t have any of that at 16. Born into the system, she’s been shuffled around 50 placements and has a pretty severe drug addiction. Now she’s being transferred to the Panopticon, a Scottish care facility designed so that all rooms are visible from the watchtower. Anais believes it’s part of a grand experiment, that someone is always watching her, waiting for her demise.

Told from her perspective, her words accented throughout, it’s difficult to tell whether or not the experiment is a manifestation of the drugs she’s taking or the paranoia she feels. She stands accused of putting a cop into a coma and arrives at the Panopticon with bloody clothes, though she can’t remember where the blood came from.

But the Panopticon harbors the kind of people Anais understands – a mother who has HIV and has passed it to her twins, a kid whose mom has cancer and who has no other family, a prostitute in love with another resident. Yet instead of exploring the scenarios she sets up, Fagan allows Anais Hendricks to delve in and out of memories, in and out of possible delusions to set up the injustice of the Scottish foster care system. Anais has only one person really looking out for her, Angus, a grad student taking up her case where her last social worker left off.

As Anais hurtles toward her court date, she watches as the Panopticon breaks down those inside, and she, too, makes a decision that breaks her in ways she seems to anticipate all along. However, some of the biggest questions the novel sets up never get answered, and it leaves The Panopticon a read that, much like its protagonist’s fear, seems to be an experiment.

The writing is harsh, graphic and sometimes difficult to get through in its attention to dialect, and though its raw exposure of foster care and the system is interesting, I never felt enough “story” to really relate to those within the walls of the Panopticon. That said, most reviews rave about this book, many calling it a best read of 2013.  Just check out Goodreads.

  • The Book Wheel

    I just won a copy of this book and can’t wait to read it!

    • I’ll be curious to see what you think.

  • I’ll be reviewing this for TLC at the end of the month–I’m looking forward to reading it. At the beginning of the year I read Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Foucault, and I learned all about the Panopticon. I’m interested to read a story set in one now.

    • Oh wow. It’s been ages since I read that. But you’re right, that will be an interesting perspective.

  • I’m glad I passed on this one — I’ve loved every Hogarth offering I’ve read, but this one seemed too … I don’t know, upsetting? … for me at the moment, but given your comments on the lack of ‘story’, I’m esp glad. That would have bugged me.

    • Yeah, too many inconsistencies for me.

  • Amy Shamroe

    I just picked this up the other day… now I’m not sure. It definitely has been moved to a lower spot in my book stack.

  • I’ve been seeing this one around a bit. It definitely seems to have a very intriguing premise.

  • iliana

    I have this book and was very excited about it but I didn’t know about the “dialect” – sometimes that doesn’t work too well for me. Sometimes I feel like it distracts me more from the story than it should. Anyway, I’ll definitely give this one a try and we’ll see how it goes!

  • Pingback: Jenni Fagan, author of The Panopticon, on tour August/September 2013 | TLC Book Tours()

  • HeatherTLC

    Darn, I’m sorry this book didn’t quite work for you but thanks for being on the tour.

  • Now that I’ve read your review in detail…

    I’m sorry you didn’t like it as much as I did. I’m trying to be objective and think about whether I would have liked it as much if the narrator hasn’t been so excellent, but I’m having a hard time imagining it. I loved Anais’s voice so much that she could have been talking about anything and I probably would have “enjoyed” it.

    • …hadn’t* (autocorrect be damned)

  • I have this one on my shelf (I’m not really sure why I say “sure I’ll review that book” and then let it languish…bad Trish!) so your mixed review has me a bit curious. Use of dialect is always interesting to me–in some ways it authenticates but it can also alienate as well.