The odd book group out last week, was reading Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, shortlisted for last year’s Desmond Elliot Prize for first time novelists. In some respects it wasn’t as far from The Orphan Master’s Son as a quick flick through the two novels might suggest, because although this is set in Britain and deals with the type of situation that has become all too familiar through repeated press coverage, both main characters are determined that they will tell their own story about their life rather than conforming to the one the state is trying to impose on them.
A panopticon is a circular prison with cells arranged around a central well, from which prisoners can be observed at all times and it is to such an institution that fifteen year old Anais Hendricks is confined after she is accused of attacking a policewoman who now lies in a coma. Anais has no recollection of the attack but there is no denying the fact that there is blood all over her school uniform. There is also no denying the fact that Anais has past form. In a book that deals with child abuse, rape, drugs and prostitution there is a tremendous amount of humour, not the least when Anais recounts some of her past misdemeanours.
“…Also, there is the second time that you have stolen a minibus from outside Rowntree High School, but this time you,’ the woman scrolls her pen down the report in front of her, ‘drove it into a wall?’
‘I drove it intae the wall both times.’
‘Something was different the second time, Miss Hendricks?’
She raises her eyebrows, stops, like she is asking a pub-quiz question. The other three panel members look to see what I’m gonnae say.
‘The second time it was on fire,’ I respond after a minute.
Brilliant. A correct answer. What do I win?
Anais is a teenager to break your heart. She is bright, she is funny, she has spunk, but she has been seriously damaged by the very society that should have been protecting her. With no idea of her background other than the notion that her mother gave birth to her in an asylum and there was a flying cat around at the time, Anais has been pushed from pillar to post all her life. Even when she feels that she has found stability with the less than conformist Teresa her world is shattered yet again when, at just eleven years of age, she finds her substitute mom murdered.
Anais is also an unreliable narrator. The amount of drugs that she pumps into her system on a daily basis means that there are times when it is difficult to be certain whether or not what she is telling us is actually what happens, either to her or to those around her. This is compounded by the fact that she has a magnificent imagination, one that has allowed her to survive some of her darkest days by creating alternative lives that she is determined one day to live. In discussion it was clear that this had created a level of ambiguity at the end of the novel. Some of us thought she had really accomplished what she set out to do, others that it was a drug induced hallucination and I was left stuck in the middle asking who, if I was supposed to believe in the ending, was the intended audience. I suddenly felt as if I was reading a book intended for teenagers.
Nevertheless there are certain events that clearly do happen, events that occur when Anais and the other children in the Panopticon are let down by the system and by society at large, events that will shake your faith in humanity. I defy anyone to read about Tash and Isla without real anger over their fate and Anais herself is cruelly abused by the very people on whom she thought she could rely. But, that isn’t to say that this is a book without hope. One of the brightest elements of the novel is the way in which these teenagers band together to support each other and become almost like a family – even if, at times they have a funny way of showing it.
The Panopticon isn’t the easiest of reads but in the end it is one that suggests there may be hope for the main character, even as it is roundly denouncing the societal structures that have allowed her to fall into the patterns of behaviour that threaten to destroy her. Jenni Fagan is a name to watch out for and I won’t take as long to get round to reading her second novel.