336pp, paperback, £7.99
Reviewed by Elizabeth Hilliard Selka
The Panopticon, a compelling, unsentimental yet heart-warming first novel from poet Jenni Fagan, is a reminder that love and humour can be found in the most desperate situations. Also that it’s a mistake to make assumptions about a person’s integrity and inner life based on the externals of their daily existence.
Apart from her name, Anais Kendricks seems just the sort of girl of whom the literate classes despair, if they spare her any thought at all. Abandoned at birth, she’s lived her entire fifteen years in care, apart from one spell under the wing of a known prostitute, Theresa. She uses drugs as a matter of course and she expects handouts to buy clothes and cigarettes. Education and employment (apart from the option of going on the game) are closed worlds to her. She is weird – paranoid about a big ‘experiment’ and has delusions of shrinking. Her associates are drug dealers, petty crooks and self-mutilators. Her only apparent skill is blowing smoke rings.
Anais has no future, and even her present lies in the balance: she is accused of beating up a policewoman so badly that the victim lies in a coma. It will be all the worse for Anais if the ‘pig’ dies, and if evidence can be found that she did it (is the blood on her clothes the police officer’s?). Meanwhile she is sent in handcuffs to the Panopticon to await developments.
The Panopticon – a curved building with an observation point at the centre to enable every part of the place to be watched – is a special sort of care home. Here Anais meets Tash, who reminds her of Frida Kahlo; Isla, her belly a mass of lacerations; and Shortie with the baseball cap. These three and some of the lads in the place become Anais’s family, and her developing relationships with them lead us into her tale.
We could dismiss Anais because of what she is, but it is impossible to resist her trenchant humour and fierce loyalty, her enterprise, her lip, her life-affirming imagination, her rapture at the night-time stars and her dreams of Paris. We are drawn into Anais’s world; we become her friend, albeit helpless. When she says she can’t remember what happened with the policewoman, but that she definitely didn’t do it, we believe her. When her good nature is turned against her and she is duped into going to a safe house to meet an old flame, with terrible consequences, we hate the bastard who manipulated her. It’s not all gloom – take the hilarious tragi-comic scene on an island in the middle of a loch, when Tash and Isla enact an impromptu marriage ceremony. The term ‘bittersweet’ could have been invented for this novel.
The Panopticon is set in the Midlothian region of Scotland and narrated in the first person. Fagan cleverly conveys Anais’s accent with just a smattering of local slang and a few oft-repeated elisions such as ‘I umnay’ for ‘I’m not’ and ‘they urnay’ for ‘they aren’t’, effective without interrupting the flow of the narrative. But Anais is no peasant. She knows, for instance, about Frida Kahlo, Vera Wang, Reiki, Timothy Leary and Anais Nin after whom Theresa has apparently named her. It’s not clear how or where or when she gained all this information; she loves to read, but when was the habit formed and where has she ever lived where books were available to her? Did she (like Jenni Fagan in her own childhood) consume the contents of a library lorry? Will she too become a poet, or writer, or artist? Rather, will she end up a jailbird junkie? There is a terrible sense of foreboding throughout, which makes this latter seem more likely than the former.
The dénoument when it arrives is almost credible, marred only by a few missing details about how, in practical terms, such an outcome could have been achieved. But really, what do these matter if you want to believe? In order to believe, however, we also have to have faith in Anais’s ability to control her wilder nature, perhaps a harder challenge. To say more would be to give away the ending which would be a shame. Read for yourself…
Sparingly and cleverly written, with poetic passages, The Panopticon is a yarn that makes one hungry for more from the same author.