Book of the Month: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan


In the spirit of ignoring responsibilities, I recently took a voluntary reading week to focus on reading something that didn’t feature the words ‘et al’ or ‘therefore’ – something I might love, not loathe.

My book of choice was ‘The Panopticon’ by Jenni Fagan following the life of 15 year old Anais Hendricks, a Scottish young offender. Written in Scottish dialect, Anais is convinced throughout the novel that there is an ‘Experiment’ following her from institute to institute; a secret group tracking and reporting on her life, forcing her into dangerous situations which then end with her hurting people and herself. The goal of this ‘Experiment’, Anais believes, is to force her to commit suicide as her mother did. What makes this storyline slightly hard to believe and follow, however, is the constant and daily acid that she ingests. This creates feelings of doubt and unease: the protagonist, who is in fact very antagonistic, is weaving a narrative built up of potential lies and drug fuelled rage. The choice to believe it is up to the reader, but there’s always the feeling that this entire story could be bias and one-sided while the real world continues outside.

Her own treatment towards herself is best captured through the referral of herself as a ‘specimen’ grown in a Petri dish – if you do not even consider yourself a person, how are you able to fully realise the harm your actions are having on other people?  This is simultaneously how she justifies and causes such a volatile lifestyle, which eventually causes her to be taken to a secure unit under investigation for the grievous bodily harm of a police officer, who is in a vegetative coma – a crime she does not remember committing, but is certain was not her.

Filled with Scottish humour (a niche genre I was not previously aware existed), Fagan allows the reader into the mind, memories and thoughts of Anais – a feat that can sometimes prove uncomfortable, and has the habit of justifying what would be otherwise horrific actions: arson, GBH and rioting to name a few.

The novel humanises the dehumanised within society, and brings into question the treatment of those we consider to be dangerous to society. A bonus was the inclusion of a normalised LGBT couple within the institute, as well as sharing the backgrounds of those from different classes, genders and walks of lives within the Panopticon prison itself. The eeriness of an all seeing watchtower which cannot be accessed but can see you at all times is particularly prevalent in this age of CCTV surveillance and tracking. It raises questions of privacy, autonomy and respect in a prison-esque environment.

If you’re looking for a druggy, uplifting and thought provoking look into Scottish young offenders lives, as we all are, then this could be the read for you. The only letdown was the subpar ending – Fagan was clearly indecisive about the fates of her characters, and this is reflected in the ambiguity and unclarity with which this novel ends. Sadly, as it was published in 2012, I doubt that a sequel is imminent.

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