Friday, August 30, 2013

Book review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

Description from the Random House website:
Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car. She is headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can't remember what’s happened, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and Anais’s school uniform is covered in blood.
Raised in foster care from birth and moved through twenty-three placements before she even turned seven, Anais has been let down by just about every adult she has ever met. Now a counter-culture outlaw, she knows that she can only rely on herself.

First things first: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan is a really good novel, but it's definitely not for everyone. There is more swearing in this book than in any other book I can remember reading, in my whole life. The F-word is on just about every page, at least once, and there's liberal use of s**t and c**t and I could go on. If you can't tolerate a large amount of foul language, don't go anywhere near this novel. (There's also a heavy Scottish dialect, which took me a little time to get used to. Maybe there are Scottish swears that I didn't even catch.)
In addition: there is a lot of drug and alcohol use, and some violence. There is a lot more sexual talk than actual sex, but there are also multiple references to prostitution, and a few mentions of rape. But, trigger warning, there is one rape scene in the book. After the first moments, once it's clear what's happening, the chapter ends, so I don't feel it was gratuitous, but it was disturbing enough that a warning is appropriate. I'll try to avoid anything else that could be considered a spoiler.
Oh, I might as well add, the narrator is a 15-year-old girl who is probably bisexual, and there are two lesbian characters. If you're still interested in the novel after I've already warned you about the swearing, the sexual talk, the fights, and the rape, then hopefully a couple of teenage girls kissing is no big deal for you.
What I really loved about this novel was the way it took me into Anais's head. It's a scary place to be, but she's incredibly tough -- and she has to be strong, to have survived her turbulent childhood. She's still able to find beauty in the world, sometimes. One day, she goes by herself into the woods.
I climb up on my oak tree, let myself fall back until I am hanging by my knees, hair trailing across the forest floor. It's soothing. The trees still have some leaves, all dry and crackly. The rest are mulch. Hundreds of tiny wishes drift through the woods, they sparkle in the dim, and dance up as silver orbs. (p. 157)

 Anais also has a savage sense of humor. There's a flashback to when she learned how to ride a bike, and she still needed training wheels.
I remember I had this amazing bike, a chopper with a flag on the back. I had tae use stabilizers even though I was nine; I learned to ride it so late it was embarrassing.
"Why did you not learn before you were nine?" some kid asked me.
I wobbled around him with one stabilizer lifting off the ground.
"My mum was too busy tae teach me."
"Too busy doing what?"
"Your da."
"And your brother."  (p. 98)
When social workers informed her they believed she had "a borderline personality," she replied, "'It's better than no personality'" (p.85). In a scene where she's being interviewed by the police, she gives her name as, "'Minnie Mouse, address: Disneyland'" (p. 96). There are times when she's afraid, and times when she feels vulnerable, but most of the time, she's completely, bitingly, unapologetically herself.
And yet, sometimes she doesn’t seem to be sure who she is.
Identity problem. Funny that. Fifty-odd moves, three different names, born in a nuthouse to a nobody that was never seen again. Identity problem? I dinnae have an identity problem -- I dinnae have an identity, just reflex actions and a disappearing veil between this world and the next.  (p. 86)
I first heard about this book on the podcast The Readers, where after mentioning it on several episodes, they chose it for The Readers Book Club earlier this year. (Read more about it and listen to the episode here; be aware that the last section does include spoilers, but Simon and Gav will warn you when they’re coming.) For the Book Club episodes, the hosts usually talk with the author to find out a bit more about them, and how they developed the story, and ask some questions about specific characters or themes. During the interview with Jenni Fagan, she said that she had been “in care” when she was young. She also said that she has ideas for half a dozen or so novels, all very different from one another, and that she hadn’t initially planned for her book about a teenager in care to be her first novel, but that’s just how it turned out.
Fagan doesn’t say very much in that interview about her own experiences in care -- which is completely understandable, and not something most people would press her about. However, having been in a couple of foster homes, a psych hospital, and a group home at various times during my own childhood, I desperately wanted to ask Jenni questions like, “Are there really so many drugs being taken right there in the group home/youth facility, and if so how is that possible? How does everyone get them?” Also, “What is the drinking age in Scotland? How is it that all these teenagers in care have access to that much alcohol?” This is probably the only area where my “willing suspension of disbelief” faltered a little -- although at the same time, I realize that Scotland and the U.S. are different countries, my experience was from 25-30 years ago, and Anais had been in care her whole life, while the periods I was out of my home were short, no more than a few months at a time. (Reading over what I just wrote, it seems weird that I was totally fine with the parts about faces hovering in the walls, men without noses, flying cats, and the idea that Anais might have been grown in a petri dish!)
Overall, I found The Panopticon to be very good, and ultimately inspiring. A lot of the book is dark, but the humorous moments, the poetic images, and the caring connections Anais makes with several other characters, these parts seem that much brighter in contrast. As I said, it’s not a book for everyone, but I hope it finds a large number of readers who will try it and find the beauty within it.
(All quotes and page numbers are from an advance reader’s edition, and might differ slightly from those in the finished publication. I borrowed it from the staff room at the library.)