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2007 - 2022

Book Review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

Whoever put this in window of Falkirk Waterstones called it right both times

Recommending a novel is a big deal. In an age of the Great Information Skim it takes time and commitment to read a book, not to mention the cash involved in purchasing it.  I try to bear this in mind when nudging anyone towards a specific title.  So far I’ve only read three novels this year I’d go totally overboard singing their praises.

One of them is The Panopticon, the debut novel by Jenni Fagan (the other two are Irvine Welsh’s masterpiece Skag Boys and Ewan Morrison’s genre-shredding Tales From The Mall).  Since I first read it in a few massive gulps I’ve been dropping hints about The Panopticon to anyone who’ll listen.

The  heroine – or anti-heroine – of The Panopticon is a creature as rare in literature as the Cyclops.  How often do you encounter a novel where a young working class Scottish woman is at its centre?  Jenni Fagan brings her motley crew of delinquents and care system outcasts to life with a verve and authenticity that breaks new ground for Scottish literature.  This book is important, vital, and packs a serious punch. I dare anyone to devour this novel and not only enjoy it but immediately start pestering friends to read it too.

In the review below Colm Linnane explains why The Panopticon left him spellbound.


Over the last couple of months no fewer than 4 different friends have raved to me, unprompted, about Jenni Fagan’s “The Panopticon”.  I had picked up on it after both Kevin Williamson and Stuart Kelly wrote approvingly about it.  This book is going to deserve all the sales and word of mouth praise it’s going to get in the coming year.  It’s been about a month since I finished it. Ever since I’ve been thinking about how to write about it, thinking about how important it is, thinking about how I can make as many people as I know read it.

So I liked it then.

Anais Hendricks is a 15 year old who gets sent to The Panopticon of the title after she is accused of a serious assault of a police officer who is now in a coma. The Panopticon is an intensive support and supervision unit on the outskirts of the city, one of countless institutions that Anais has been dispatched to since her birth.  The novel, told from Anais’ perspective, pieces together her version of the events around the incident that got her here and her life so far. It’s about Anais’ growing and palpable need to escape her environment, her memories, her history as the apparently inevitable  destinations of a woman in her situation (Jail/prostitution/sexual violence/death) begin to dawn on her. To call Anais’ an unreliable narrator does her an enormous disservice, she’s as reliable as a chaotic, imaginative, funny and intelligent teenage girl can be.  As a character representative of young people in the care system she’s as close to perfect as you can get. Fagan has done her research and her work as a writer in residence in prisons has given her a sharp eye for details of the language, culture and morality of desperate children failed by everyone around them.  But research doesn’t account for the assured job that Fagan has done in balancing the humour, realism and deeply upsetting events that has led her characters to the Panopticon.

A few years ago the National Theatre of Scotland did a major piece of new work for the International Festival. 365 was an attempt to bring to life young people in residential care making their first tentative steps in the adult world.  It was realistic, true to the stories of the young people who contributed to David Harrower’s script, featured the same riot of rambunctious  inter-lifer dynamism and the alienation many care-leavers feel, picking through reams of their social work files desperately searching for anything to tell them who they are and where they’ve come from. The NTS project was laudable, they did their research, involved young care-leavers and social care professionals but they ultimately failed where Fagan has triumphed.  In 365 the issues overwhelmed the drama but The Panopticon’s true strength is the ability to do justice to the issues and still be an enjoyable, compulsive  read.

I have worked alongside people in Social and Residential Care sector and there’s likely to be stuff in here that they’d find tough going and possibly unfair, but I’d hope they’d recognise the superb character that does justice to so many young people in our society.  These young people are miraculous simply by the fact of their survival.  Anais is scathing and extraordinarily insightful about units, spaces that aim to be “home” for young people but are, when you come down to it workplaces for the staff. Her claim to know exactly what’s happened to someone just by looking at them borne out by a lifetime of watching adults, reading their reactions, anticipating what they’re going to do next.  She switches between teenage hyperbabble and her internalised social work terminology, a testament to sitting in meeting rooms being discussed, like a specimen by The Experiment, a constant, menacing presence in her life.  Some critics have quibbled with the portrayal of Anais as being so knowing but I think Fagan’s portrayal of a hyper vigilant, emotionally ferocious care lifer is pretty much spot on.

I think everyone with a passing interest in where we are as a society should read The Panopticon. It’s an important and sensitively written portrayal of a person that our media and political elites spend loads of time talking about but very little energy trying to understand.  Anais’ righteous fury at the limitations of state care is exhilarating, the scenes when the children resist concerted attempts by staff to keep them out of harms way communicates a complex problem in a dramatic and sensitive way.  It’s an angry, upsetting book that talks to the horror of a society that effectively imprisons children because we can’t or won’t keep them safe from people who would exploit them.   The book features upsetting and graphic portrayals of abuse, exploitation and violence against children and women, it is unflinching and sensitive about the effect of complex, combination trauma on young people and the cumulative effect it can have on a person’s personality.  In the first chapter Anais introduces us to The Birthday Game, which she imagines a family she could remember, know, hold. It’s extraordinarily moving and should influence the way the state cares for young people for the next 20 years.

Buy this book. Read this book.

Then go find someone who pontificates about “feral youths” and “something for nothing culture”.

And batter them with this book.

Or just buy a copy for every 18 year old in the country and campaign to have it put on the curriculum.

Colm Linnane

This review was first published on Colm’s blog LibraryDotColm

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  1. Doug Daniel says:

    I have Jenni’s book on my “to read” list, but unfortunately I find it increasingly difficult to get through books these days. Even now, I have a book right beside me that I’m meant to be trying to finish, but instead I’m faffing about on the internet!

  2. Paul M says:

    Sadly, i also find it hard to take the time and make the effort to read books. too busy on the internet instead…

  3. JeanU says:

    I have no time to read, but read all the time! And I’m off to get a copy of ‘The Panoptican’ this minute………….thanks for such a review Kevin.

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