Marie’s Reading: “The Panopticon” by Jenni Fagan

panopticonCompletely Personal Opinion Ahead:  I loved this book.  I loved it unreservedly and could find nothing wrong with it at all.  It’s on my favorites list for 2013.  This is the first time this year, I think, that I’ve been able to say that wholeheartedly and without any quibbling about a new novel.

That said, this is a tough novel, and one that probably won’t appeal to everyone.  The Panopticon is not anything like what you might infer from the dust jacket description.  It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.  I mean that in the best possible way.  From what I read about the book I was led to believe that this was one of those dystopia sort of novels, with the girl vs. the establishment plotline as its centerpiece.  I have no doubt this was precisely what the marketing department wanted me to think.

That is not what The Panopticon is.  At all.  Instead, it’s a story about a troubled but fundamentally kind and honorable fifteen-year-old girl named Anais.  She is in the Panopticon (a home for chronic juvenile offenders) while the police try to uncover whether or not she beat a police officer nearly to death.  Her sometime boyfriend is in prison, and the foster mother who she loved and had lived with longer than any other was murdered.  There’s a lot of bleakness in Anais’s life, and a lot of trauma in her history.  Sometimes it’s tough to feel sympathy for her in light of her actions, but that just makes her so much more real.

This novel is compelling, affecting, and tip-top in the unreliable narrator department.  Anais’s story isn’t a comfortable one to read, but it’s one that makes you care about her and feel invested in what happens to her.  Fagan displays a real talent for tone and for character voices, and her writing style is reminiscent of Irvine Welsh.  There’s also a bit of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest here, in the sense that these kids in the Panopticon band together and rebel against an establishment that fails them repeatedly.

As for the unreliable narrator aspect…Anais does a lot of drugs.  A lot of drugs.  All through the novel she talks about the Experiment, and people who fade in and out of the walls.  This Experiment, Anais believes, grew her in a test tube and now follows her everywhere, just waiting.   We’re in Anais’s head the entire time for this novel, so it’s really up to you to decide whether she’s delusional.

I was very reminded of Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees while reading The Panopticon.  This novel has a heck of a lot in common with Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, too.  Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman and The Sweet In-Between by Sheri Reynolds are both excellent novels about girls with troubled home lives and pasts who nonetheless find strength and support networks for themselves.  (Click here for my review of The Sweet In-Between.)  Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell might also be a good choice for readers who enjoy bleak, tough stories with a strong protagonist and a Western sort of feel.

As I mentioned, this book owes a lot to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, so that could also be a readalike.  A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess might also appeal to some who liked The Panopticon, but only if you want to go even further into completely bleak and disturbing territory.

I absolutely loved this novel.  I was swept up and compelled all the way through.  Anais and her story got to me on a visceral level, which is exactly what I love to have happen when I read a book.  I was sad and uncomfortable and moved and angry and sympathetic all by turns while reading The Panopticon.  A great read, and one I’ll be talking up at the circulation desk.

–Marie

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