update // review of ‘The Panopticon’ by Jenni Fagan

A season of quitting: employ and country. An interesting word, ‘quit’ – from the Latin originally: ‘quies’ – meaning ‘sleep, rest, repose, absence of activity, absence of noise, freedom from disturbance, freedom from anxiety, placidness, serenity, tranquility, peaceful conditions’, which might explain the rest and repose taken from this little site while I’ve attempted to finish my zine and restructure my days. to plug the gap, here’s a little review I wrote a while ago of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon. I had the pleasure of seeing Jenni talk at the Southbank Centre a few days ago & I highly recommend her work if you haven’t already checked it out.

Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon: A Review

Up on the top floor, the windows are barred and boarded up. I bet there’s petitions to close this place down already; they’ll be people from the village writing letters tae their MPs. Mr Masters is right. He told us all about it in history – communities dinnae like no-ones.

Jenni Fagan’s debut novel is one that forces the reader to confront head-on his/her notions of ‘communities’ and ‘no ones’. From its preface, the novel’s protagonist, Anais Hendricks – care home resident, serial offender and serious Francophile – makes clear that her world is one of ‘they’ versus ‘me’: one in which she and her care home friends are perpetually unwanted by society; in which her loved ones disappear while middle-class commuters willfully ignore their missing person posters; in which the media respond to the abuse of a working-class child merely by declaring that ‘NOBODY COULD PREVENT’ it; and in which most of Anais’ contemporaries, as she points out, are either ‘in training for the proper jail […] or the game’. Behind all this looms too the literal and metaphorical spectacle of the Panopticon: the architecturally prison-esque care home in the middle of the Midlothian countryside that leaves its disenfranchised residents feeling like inmates even in the supposed freedom of contemporary Scotland.

Fagan’s novel feels like a rebuttal to this society that too often chooses to ignore voices like that of Anais. Her first-person female east-coast Scots narrative (which itself feels like a rebuttal to the male-dominated Edinburgh narratives of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting) shifts registers and tones masterfully, introducing Anais not only as the bloodstained, handcuffed, no-good youth in the back of a police car that may or may not have just put a policewoman into a coma, but also as an individual capable of intense vulnerability, intelligence, and appreciation of the natural world that the authority-figures who would write her off fail to recognise. The casual way in which Anais and her fellow residents openly discuss their experiences of rape, self-harm, drug use, and violence shatters societal notions of the ‘unspeakable’ nature of these unsavory or traumatic experiences, and shocks with its suggested normality. This novel is a plunge into the uncomfortable reality of sexism, classism, violence, and institutional abuse. Yet for all she has experienced, Anais is undeniably and defiantly a teenager, and this is as much a bildungsroman as a piece of social realism. Variously enthusing about ‘pill-box hats’, philosophising on social media and human nature, proclaiming the delights of French novelists as if the first to discover them, and taking time to proclaim the delights of ‘a butty in bed’, Anais is not here to be judged guilty or not guilty, or to be the face of the Scottish underclass, but to provide a look at what it’s like to mature – albeit in a very different setting than we usually see, and one we need to think more closely about.

Fagan’s debut really is stunning, with a strength of voice I’ve rarely seen – no wonder Ken Loach has already signed up to produce the film adaptation, and Granta selected Fagan as one of its decennial Best of Young British Novelists in 2013. The ending of the book is perhaps its only weakness, with Anais’ rather implausible flight to Paris and suggestions of happy-ever-after. But then, crucially, this is only ever a suggestion, and the reader must judge for his/herself whether to trust the word of a self-confessed semi-delusional teenage fantasist and the existence of happy-ever-after in a world this harsh. Fagan’s novel is not a novel of answers, but a novel of experience. And, as powerful, disturbing, and always engaging as it is, it’s well worth experiencing.

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