Jenni Fagan's gritty and compelling debut novel about a Scottish teenager who has been locked up for a crime she did not commit is a laudable attempt to draw attention to an important social issue.
The Panopticon: crime drama not for the faint of heart
Earlier this year, a leading British bookseller announced its annual list of "future literary stars". Much was made of the fact that this line-up, produced by the book retailer Waterstones, was dominated by female writers and that so many of their novels featured strong female protagonists. Without a doubt, the fiercest of all these characters is Anais Hendricks, the 15-year-old orphan in Jenni Fagan's debut fiction.
Anais has been in care all her life - 24 placements before she was adopted, aged seven, then another 27 moves following her adopted mother's murder when she was 11. Along the way there have also been countless run-ins with the law: breaches of the peace, attacks on others, theft, shoplifting, destruction of property, joyriding, inciting riots in various children's homes, the list goes on.
Fagan's story begins in the back of a police car - a policewoman is in a coma and Anais, who has an incriminating amount of blood on her school uniform, is on her way to the Panopticon, a unit for chronic young offenders that takes its name from the eighteenth-century philosopher, Jeremy Bentham's, concept of an institutiona design involving a central surveillance tower with rooms stationed around the perimeter, thus allowing observation of every inmate at all times while they themselves remain unaware of whether or not they're being watched.
"This whole building is in a big curve, like the shape of a C [...] Right in the middle of the C shape, as high as the top floor, is the watchtower. There is a surveillance window going all the way around the top and you cannae see through the glass, but whoever or whatever is in there can see out. From the watchtower it could see into every bedroom, every landing, every bathroom. Everywhere." It's a process of "divide and conquer", Anais notes as she enters the building for the first time. All doors are kept open during daylight hours so there's nowhere to hide: "There are no secrets here in the Panopticon", one of the staff tells their newest resident.
Although her police record would suggest otherwise, Anais is adamant she wasn't responsible for the attack, but time is running out for Fagan's heroine to prove her innocence.
We soon learn that Anais hasn't exactly been afforded many breaks in her life. If Fagan is trying to make the point that it's the system that's failing these children - an increasingly pertinent issue since accusations of "feral" youth were brought to the fore by last year's riots in the UK - she sounds her note loud and clear.
"We're just in training for the proper jail", Anais shrewdly acknowledges of herself and the other Panopticon "clients" (though as they themselves note, "inmate" is a more appropriate term). Bar the one potentially truly disturbed child in the unit, a young boy named Brian, for whom one of the creepiest descriptions in the book is afforded - "He steals pity like golden eggs then he sucks them dry and places them back real gentle" - the troubling behaviour of the rest can be traced to their own long histories of abuse and neglect.
Anais, however, is a mass of contradictions: she doesn't stick to the Panopticon's "uniform" ("No hair extensions, no tracksuits, no gold jewellery"); instead she wears a "pillbox hat and sailor shorts" and red lipstick. "I adore dragonflies. I adore the sea, the moon, the stars, vintage Dior and old movies in black and white," she confesses, while harbouring dreams of being a painter living "in a studio in Paris somewhere above a bakery where I'd wake up every morning to the smell of fresh croissants".
She spends time retreating into a fantasy world and her most enduring daydream is of "a beautiful mother who wears headscarves and big Jackie O sunglasses and drives barefoot without a seat belt on". This idyll's antagonist - that we can only imagine has been fed by numerous drug-fuelled bad trips over the years - is the sinister presence of "the experiment", an otherwise unidentified source that is watching Anais' every move.
While one can see the metaphorical point to this - a life lived in institutional care is a life always observed (whether through the architectural design of the building, secure corridors, or electronic tagging devices clamped on repeat offenders' legs) - this narrative thread is unconvincing and distracts from Fagan's otherwise sure-footed, gritty social realism. Indeed, it was precisely the experiment's supposed all-seeing eye that the Panopticon itself lacked, as this particular unit ultimately doesn't prove any more attentive of its "clients" than any other.
Despite this quibble, Fagan excels when it comes to both her characterisation and her narrative voice. She turns her poet's ear to the Scottish vernacular with, given the foulness of so much of her protagonists' language, surprisingly poetic effect.
This powerful mix of delight and disgust seems to be The Panopticon all over. But be warned, despite its commanding characters, this is not a book for the faint-hearted. These pages are saturated with violence, abuse and trauma. A feeling of detachment kicks in as one journeys through the book. The violence never seems gratuitous, though, probably because there's a strong sense that Fagan is telling it like it is (she works as a writer in residence in prisons and hospitals in her native Scotland).
Circumstance has taught each of her characters to be oblivious to their own suffering. Giving her new neighbours a brief history of her past placements, Anais is so unmoved she "could be reciting the ingredients for cornflakes". The point here is that she's said it all so many times before it no longer means anything. Yet, underneath their often brutal bravado, most of these characters yearn for nothing more than "just a plain ordinary life".
Despite the intense attachments they understandably end up forming, each of the Panopticon's inmates nurtures a dream of a life beyond the institution's walls and, underlying Anais' fantasies is the simple wish to have had a mum "who I'd met, who I'd lived with".
These moments of vulnerability pierce through our heroine's hardened exterior with near heartbreaking effect and it's all too easy to forget that the girl we're dealing with here is ultimately still a child.
Given its subject matter, it would be hard to describe this as an enjoyable novel but it certainly is compelling reading. It's a fiery and audacious debut that does justice to a powerful heroine and promises equally gripping future work from its author.
Lucy Scholes is a freelance journalist who lives in London.