Dear reader, meet Anais. She’s a spectacularly messed up juvenile delinquent, having met more than her fair share of care homes and counsellors, uppers and downers, and a range of hallucinations when she’s gone too high. She has a strong sense of self, developed the hard way through being on her own from the moment she was born when her mother abandoned her to a life of state-run care. She can read your thoughts when she’s tripping, but she finds all of them snoozeworthy. You’ll probably like her, anyway.
Jenni Fagan’s book unintentionally comments on the care system for young people in the United Kingdom. Fagan grew up in the system herself, but notes in interviews that she didn’t intend to make her first novel about it. As so often happens with first novels, she wrote about what she knows. Fagan peppers the dialogue with colloquialisms to keep your head grounded in the Scottish accent, lending a rough edge to the language and cultural tone of the novel. Fagan is very aware that she made young Anais awkward and uncomfortable to be around.
The odds seem stacked against Anais, who started off life so completely without family she is sometimes sure she was born out of a test tube, some kind of experiment gone wrong. She’s known for her run-ins with police, and she doesn’t seem able to resist pulling pranks on uppity officials. Indeed, when Anais arrives in the opening pages of The Panopticon she’s in police custody, her school outfit covered in blood, and no memory of how a policewoman she has had altercations with in the past ended up in a coma.
With a mountain of offences growing against her, Anais is taken to the Panopticon, while the authorities prepare a case that would lock her in a higher security institution with no chance of escape until she turns 18. She knows full well that most kids in her situation never make it out of that kind of place. She’s always looking for ways to fight back. Allies pop up in unusual places, from a single social worker who sees more than meets the eye when he brings her to her court hearings, to a friend of her foster mother’s who good naturedly tries to make sure Anais has plenty of acid in her stash, Fagan populates her story with a very mixed bag of characters.
We meet Anais at the age of 15, but she often revisits memories of her younger years. They’re sometimes clearly invented, and she makes a game in her head about all the other ways her life could have started out. At other times her memories seem to be based in reality, including memories of her foster mother, memories of an ex-boyfriend who texts when he’s in trouble, memories of ex-lovers, and close brushes with rape. It’s all part of life as an orphan with a hard past and harder present.
Anais is unlike your average teenager. She’s been in care all her life, she takes drugs as readily as you might drink a glass of water, she has been invited to train in an S&M dungeon because she looks so young and perfect, and she’s hard as nails on the inside.
Yet she’s simultaneously like every teenager: daydreaming of a life in Paris (or somewhere else exotic and far away from the cold, restrictive, rule-laden Panopticon), wishing she had any parents other than her real unknown ones, living only in the moment, unable to respond to consider consequence or future purpose. She dresses carefully, has a honed sense of style that includes just the right shade of (shoplifted) lipstick, and a knack for presenting herself as more put-together than her inner monologue would suggest.
When you first arrive at a new care facility, you have to be very careful. Anais has learned over the course of dozens of experiences in different care environments. Look for the exits, the layouts of the common areas, the escape routes. Make sure when you first interact with the other residents you show strength against whoever considers themselves hard, or they’ll never leave you alone. You have to identify the stable parts of your environment, defend yourself against the people who mistreat you just because you’re there, and never let your guard down.
The Panopticon was originally published in the UK in 2012, and has been widely acclaimed. Fagan also writes well-received poetry, and she is a current contributor to Granta Magazine, named in this past April’s Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4.
The Panopticon is remarkably consistent for a first novel, and shows real promise of Fagan’s innate talent.