The Panopticon

panopticonThe Short Version: Anais Hendricks is fifteen.  In and out of foster homes and care centers, she’s a tough young girl and now she may well be done: the cops have her on charges of assaulting a police officer.  While they try to determine her guilt, she’s sent to the Panopticon: a unique prison-slash-halfway-home where she, despite herself, begins to develop a family and a sense of belonging in her life.

The Review: This is one of those books that I feel like is being marketed just slightly incorrectly.  Toss out the Margaret Atwood/Handmaid’s Tale comparisons, the sense of anything supernatural or suspicious.  There are things in this book that seem out-of-this-world or not quite in sync, but they are only whispers, musings, imagined moments from a drug-addled imagination.  Mostly, take these things out of your head because they do the book a disservice: this is a complex, beautiful novel about the lost children on whom the system seems to’ve given up – and one lost child in particular.

Anais spends most of this book doped up on any combination of drugs and booze and she’s a hard little thing to boot – she does not make it easy to like her.  She’s quite intelligent but one of those classic “misguided” kids, bounced around as attempted foster parents and homes can’t find a way to get a handle on her.  So when she shows up at the Panopticon, blurry and suspicious, you expect things to go poorly.  But instead of it being a typical “oh, isn’t it so hard inside these places!” sort of novel, Fagan flips the readers expectations on their ear and instead makes the Panopticon almost (almost) the sort of place you could imagine having a modestly okay life.

It’s a strange beast, the Panopticon – a relic of an older time, an interesting if obviously flawed attempt to be (perhaps) more humane to those we institutionalize (for whatever reasons).  As a reader, it was almost hard to get my head around what it looked like, how it was presented – but, then, that might also be because Anais’ descriptions are never quite complete.  I did mention, didn’t I, that she’s on a lot of drugs?  But she’s also an imaginative teenager – and all teenagers, in one way or another, imagine things.  Her imagination has set up a scenario in which she is part of an “experiment” – she has to be, right?  That’s the only way her life could’ve led itself down this completely screwed up path, right?  It’s a heartbreaking rationalization technique and I found myself wanting, throughout the novel and right up to the end, it to be true.  I wanted the experiment to be real and for them to pull back the curtain (and make the Atwood et al references come true) and put some semblance of imposed meaning on this hopeless life.

Because otherwise… it’s a difficult read, this book.  Oh, sure, the language can be tough – Anais speaks in a pretty thick Scottish dialect, with lots of “umnays” and “dinnaes” – but to watch these little bits of hope arise and then to see the real world smash down into these kids’ lives… you’d have to be a hard soul not to find yourself yearning for some ray of sunshine for these kids.  Either that or you’re a true Thatcherite, reading this and saying that these kids get what they deserve for drinking and screwing and acting out.  But Fagan makes the excellent point that, no, they don’t.  And that they can, given the opportunity, turn themselves around.  Anais has the opportunity to do several awful things – become a prostitute, drug dealer, etc etc – and she never does a one.  Even when she does consider selling some of her drugs, in order to make some money, you can tell she’s conflicted about it.  She doesn’t want to go down that path – she strives for something better.  And when the world continues to confound her, her resentment and bitterness is completely justified.  After a horrible, harrowing turn of events near the end of the book, she opts not to go to the police – because she just believes (probably correctly) that they wouldn’t take her seriously.  That they’re out for her and going to them would just be humiliating, not helpful.
And the worst part is that, while this is a fictional story, that’s exactly what happens today. In England, yes, but also in America, in the rest of Europe, around the rest of the world.  Oh the circumstances might be different and the variables changed depending on locale – but the sentiment is the same.  Society gives up hope that these kids will make anything of themselves and as a result the kids turn their back on society.  It’s not the other way ’round, despite what the powers that be might have you believe.  And that – that thought, coming away from the book with that thought – is why this book is worth reading.  By the end, I was rooting for these outcasts and oddballs – and more than willing to forgive some of the novel’s bumpier moments.

Rating: 4 out of 5.  I was initially cool towards this book – the language and content, while interesting and bold, were grating for a time.  But slowly, I warmed up to Anais and to her mates at the Panopticon.  As their lives started to take turns for the worse, I was crushed and saddened for-and-along-with them.  And when that last chance presented itself, I leapt at Anais’ decision.  Despite myself and despite my early misgivings, the book won me over with old-fashioned work.  It touched me and I look forward to what Ms. Fagan will bring us next.

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