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The Panopticon: A Novel Hardcover – Deckle Edge, July 23, 2013
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*Starred Review* Anais Hendricks, the tough, fiery 15-year-old at the center of Fagan’s first novel, has grown up in the foster care system in England. Abandoned by her mother, who gave birth to her in a mental institution, Anais has been bounced around ever since the murder of Theresa, a compassionate prostitute and the only mother figure Anais has ever known. Anais is brought to the Panopticon, a halfway house for truant teens, after she’s accused of brutally beating a police officer and leaving her in a coma. Anais, who was hopped up on drugs at the time, can’t remember whether she’s guilty or not. The police are gunning for her, determined to send Anais to juvenile detention until she’s 18. At the Panopticon, Anais is convinced she’s being watched as part of a sinister experiment, the purpose of which, she believes, is to try to bring her down and all but eradicate her from society. Told in Anais’ raw voice, Fagan’s novel peers into the world inhabited by forgotten children, and, in Anais, gives us a heartbreakingly intelligent and sensitive heroine wrapped in an impossibly impenetrable exterior. Readers won’t be able to tear themselves away from this transcendent debut. --Kristine Huntley
Named one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists
Shortlisted for The Desmond Elliott Award
Shortlisted for The James Tait Black Prize
Shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize
“Fagan has created a feisty, brass-knuckled yet deeply vulnerable heroine, who feels like sort of a cross between Lisbeth Salander, Stieg Larsson’s 'Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,' and one of Irvine Welsh’s drug-taking Scottish miscreants from 'Trainspotting' or 'Skagboys.' Her novel is by turns gritty, unnerving, exhausting, [and] ferocious...A deeply felt and genuinely affecting novel.” —Michiko Kakutani, New York Times
“Fagan has given us one of the most spirited heroines to cuss, kiss, bite and generally break the nose of the English novel in many a moon…there is no resisting the tidal rollout of Fagan’s imagery. Her prose beats behind your eyelids, the flow of images widening to a glittering delta whenever Anais approaches the vexed issue of her origins…vive Jenni Fagan...whose next book just moved into my ‘eagerly anticipated’ pile.”—Tom Shone, New York Times Book Review
“[Fagan] grew up in what’s euphemistically called ‘the care system,’ and she writes about these young people with a deep sympathy for their violently disordered lives and an equally deep appreciation of their humor and resiliency…[Fagan has a] rousing voice, with its roundly rendered Scottish accent.”—Ron Charles, Washington Post
"A classic coming-of-age tale."—Boston Globe
“Fagan’s style calls to mind fellow Scottish writer Anthony Burgess, whose novel A Clockwork Orange used similar lexicographic liberties to reinforce a theme of teenage dystopia” —The Daily Beast
“[A] terrific portrait of a young criminal…Fagan makes this ugly life somehow beautiful.”—Alan Cheuse, NPR
"The Panopticon [is] a terrifically gritty and vivid debut.” —Cleveland Plain Dealer
“She’s Oliver, with a twist. Anais Hendricks, 15, and the female protagonist of poetess Fagan’s first novel, cuts right to the chase as she chronicles the modern British foster care system.” —New York Post
“The Panopticon is like its protagonist: tough as old boots and always ready with the fists, but likely to steal your heart if you’ll just slow down and listen.”—National Post
“Fagan creates a complex and vulnerable character…[and] even though Anais makes it hard for you to love her, you can’t help wishing her out of her plight and cheering her upward.” —Bust (four stars)
"The Panopticon is an exquisite first novel--Jenni Fagan has created a dark, disturbing, yet ultimately hopeful portrait of a young woman growing up alone in the Scottish foster care system. To say it is haunting is an understatement--I kept wanting to set a place for Anais at the table with the rest of my children."—Vanessa Diffenbaugh, New York Times bestselling author of The Language of Flowers
"Jenni Fagan has created a high-resolution portrait of a throwaway kid. Fifteen-year-old Anais, born in a mental ward, tumbled through the social work system, violated and violent, high on whatever, each decision she makes is a jaunty wave as she sails past the next point of no return. This is a contemporary tragedy of the highest order." —Carol Anshaw, New York Times bestselling author of Carry the One
“In the Margaret Atwood/The Handmaid’s Tale vein—very literary and suspenseful. I like books set in an altered reality—one that feels familiar and yet also deeply unfamiliar, that embodies some of the dailiness of life, and yet slowly reveals itself to be a very different, much more sinister place.”—Gillian Flynn, Oprah.com
"With The Panopticon, Fagan makes Foucault proud and readers ecstastic. This is why we read. You'll begin wanting to save Anais Hendricks but finish wondering if, and how, she's managed to save you."— Tupelo Hassman, author of Girlchild
"Jenni Fagan is the real thing, and The Panopticon is a real treat: maturely alive to the pains of maturing, and cleverly amused as well as appalled by what it finds in the world." -Andrew Motion
"Ferocious and devastating, The Panopticon sounds a battle-cry on behalf of the abandoned, the battered, and the betrayed. To call it a good novel is not good enough: this is an important novel, a book with a conscience, a passionate challenge to the powers-that-be. Jenni Fagan smashes every possible euphemism for adolescent intimacy and adolescent violence, and she does it with tenderness and even humour. Hats off to Jenni Fagan! I will be recommending this book to everyone I know." -Eleanor Catton, author of The Rehearsal
"This is a wonderful book – gripping and brilliant. Anais’s journey will break your heart and her voice is unforgettable. Bursting with wit, humanity and beauty as well as an unflinching portrayal of life as a ‘cared for’ young adult, this book will not let you go." -Kate Williams
"Best debut novel I've read this year." -Irvine Welsh
"Uncompromising and courageous...one of the most cunning and spirited novels I’ve read for years. The story of Anais, a fifteen-year-old girl blasting her way through the care-home system while the system in turn blasts her away to nothing, looks on the surface to be work of a recognizable sort, the post-Dickensian moral realism/fabulism associated with writers like Irvine Welsh. But Fagan’s narrative talent is really more reminiscent of early Camus and that this novel is a debut is near unbelievable. Tough and calm, electrifying and intent, it is an intelligent and deeply literary novel which deals its hope and hopelessness simultaneously with a humaneness, both urgent and timeless, rooted in real narrative subtlety."–Ali Smith, TLS – books of the year
"If you’re trying to find a novel to engage a determinedly illiterate teenager, give them this one. Anais, the 15-year-old heroine and narrator, has a rough, raw, joyous voice that leaps right off the page and grabs you by the throat…This punkish young philosopher is struggling with a terrible past, while battling sinister social workers. Though this will appeal to teenagers, the language and ideas are wholly adult, and the glorious Anais is unforgettable." –The Times
"[A] confident and deftly wrought debut…The Panopticon is an example of what Martin Amis has called the “voice novel”, the success of which depends on the convincing portrayal of an idiosyncratic narrator. In this Fagan excels…Her voice is compellingly realised. We cheer her on as she rails against abusive boyfriends and apathetic social workers, her defiance rendered in a rich Midlothian brogue." –Financial Times
"The most assured and intriguing first novel by a Scottish writer that I have read in a decade, a book which is lithely and poetically written, politically and morally brave and simply unforgettable…Anais’s voice is an intricate blend of the demotic and the hauntingly lyrical…There are moments which are genuinely distressing to read, which return the reader to a painful sense of how mindlessly and unspeakable cruel people can be. But it is marbled with cynical, smart comedy…Fagan is exceptionally skilful with bathos, a notoriously difficult literary register; here, however, it manages to be funny and heart-breakingly tender at the same time…Naturalistic and pleasingly oblique. Life, as Stevenson said, is “infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant”. To render this novelistically is a rare achievement…The Panopticon appeals to writers since in some ways the novelist is the prison’s arch-overseer, able to look into the minds of the characters. But that comes with a duty: to keep your eyes open even when you’d rather shut them. Fagan is gloriously open-eyed about immaturity, maturity, sexuality, crime, dispossession and more. Her ability to capture the cross-currents of language, the impersonations of consciousness, is admirable…As a debut, The Panopticon does everything it should. It announces a major new star in the firmament." –Stuart Kelly, Scotsman
"[The narrator] is engagingly drawn by Fagan, who has created a character possessed of intellectual curiosity and individual quirks…Written with great verve…Fagan has a clear voice, an unflinching feel for the complexity of the teenage mindset, and an awareness of the burden we impose on children…What’s intriguing here – particularly in a Scottish fiction landscape that can display too much of the plodding everyday – is her effort to lift the story of teen misadventure into a heightened realm of intellectual aspiration and quasi-sci-fi notions of sinister social change." –Scotland on Sunday
"What Fagan depicts in her debut novel, The Panopticon, is a society in which people don't just fall through the net – there is no net…Fagan is writing about important stuff: the losers, the lonely, most of them women. [Anais] maintains a cool, smart, pretty, witty and wise persona." –Guardian
"Reminiscent of Girl, Interrupted…The novel is as bold, shocking and intelligent as its central character…The institutional details (magnolia walls, screwed-down chairs) anchor The Panopticon in realism, giving it a greater bite. Much of Anais’ life is the stuff of tabloid shock stories and The Panopticon’s strength lies in giving you an insight into the lonely, damaged girl behind the headlines…This week’s winner." –Stylist
"An indictment of the care system, this dazzling and distinctive novel has at its heart an unstoppable heroine…Fagan’s prose is fierce, funny and brilliant at capturing her heroine’s sparky smartness and vulnerability…Emotionally explosive."–Marie Claire
"Fagan's writing is taut and controlled and the dialogue crackles." –The Herald
This is the best debut I’ve read this year...and all because of the character of Anais, who is one of the best narrators I have ever come across. An essential read."–Living North
“Anais’s story is one of abandonment, loss, and redemption, well suited for a paranoid age in which society finds itself constantly under the microscope.” –Publishers Weekly
“Dark and disturbing but also exciting and moving, thanks to a memorable heroine and vividly atmospheric prose…Fagan [paints] her battered characters’ fierce loyalty to each other with such conviction and surprising tenderness.”—Kirkus Reviews
“Told in Anais’ raw voice, Fagan’s novel peers into the world inhabited by forgotten children, and, in Anais, gives us a heartbreakingly intelligent and sensitive heroine wrapped in an impossibly impenetrable exterior. Readers won’t be able to tear themselves away from this transcendent debut.” –Booklist (starred review)
"Anais's ongoing internal dialog, her periodic reimagining of her life and situation, is enthralling...James Kelman's How Late It Was, How Late meets Ken Kesey's One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest. Not to be missed." –Library Journal (starred review)
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Top customer reviews
I purchased The Panopticon as an eBook/audiobook combo but ended up listening to the audiobook for the majority of the story. The narrator (Gayle Madine) has a very heavy British accent and this, combined with the profuse slang used, made it difficult at first to keep up with what was happening. Once I got used to this, however, I really enjoyed the inflections and feelings she put into the story. Even with the heavy subject matter being discussed, the lives of these young offenders are infused with humor and love that felt very real and made me hope they would somehow all come out the other side of their tangled young lives happy and healthy (which, of course, is not realistic). While some readers might find the slang, heavy cursing, violent actions and drug use discussed a turnoff, I think it was completely necessary to present this world of damaged and neglected children as realistically as possible.
The majority of the story takes place in Anais's head, which is an interesting perspective as it makes some aspects very fanciful or gritty while also making some of what she tells us unreliable. As the synopsis points out, Anais has been moved around from one home to another since she was a baby and she has developed a long list of habits and rituals to help her cope and control what she can, as I imagine most children in her situation would do. Anais is a remarkable character, clever and sensitive (about certain things at least) but also cynical and desensitized given her experiences. I spent much of the story going back and forth between believing she had severe mental issues - with her believing she is part of an experiment where she is constantly watched and manipulated by unseen people that want to see her locked up for life, panic attacks were she sees faces on the walls and feels like she is shrinking, her inability to remember what happened at the time the policewoman was beaten so badly she ends up in a coma - and feeling like she had a better handle on this world than most adults do. She's caring, abusive, generous, selfish...in other words she is a complex and flawed person like everyone else. It isn't often I come across a character that is as destructive as Anais and that I wholeheartedly cheer for nonetheless, but that is exactly what happened.
My only real issue with The Panopticon was the author's failure to wrap up the various threads she started in the story. Two of the main aspects - the policewoman in a coma and the experiment tracking Anais - sort of drifted off by the end. The reader isn't given any concrete answers to either issue and this made the drama and mystery just sort of deflate for me. There are other more minor threads, like the disappearance of a fellow Panopticon resident and the fate of Anais's incarcerated boyfriend that used her in a most horrible way, that are left unresolved as well. The fate of Anais herself is left somewhat unresolved and, while I can see that the author is leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions, I would have preferred a little more resolution when it came to the future of these captivating characters.
Author Jenni Fagan clearly knows how to get inside the heads and hearts of young people who are forced to cope with things that no human should have to cope with and I think she presents these mistreated and neglected children perfectly. The family that develops at the Panopticon is remarkable and I absolutely loved spending time with them. While I would have preferred more concrete resolutions, those readers that enjoy drawing their own conclusions will revel in the material given. I won't soon forget Anais or her compatriots and I will definitely watch for more novels by Ms. Fagan.
After reading the sample and then looking at the reviews I was quite surprised by the readers who were so vehement in their dislike of the novel.
To be fair, I did find some of the colloquial language challenging at times, but I much prefer something different and interesting than someone who fills the pages with four adjective descriptive terms which equate to "he's hot." or whatever.
This reminded me somewhat of, i think, The Color Purple. The initial pages are challenging because the author is a fledgling writer and reader and the case, spelling and grammer reflect a child-like understanding of language. The pace and prose of Panopticon is much as I would expect of a teenage girl institutionalized for the greater portion of her life. It reflects the lack of access to good education which is necessary to articulate well and with the descriptive terms of, say, a college professor or someone similar.
There were a number of readers who did not like Anais. It is not clear to me why being likeable reflects so negatively on the story. It is a story and again, I imagine her to be much like a child brought up in her circumstance would be. She is defensive, and given her exposure to so many different street drugs including hallucinogenic ones she spends a good deal of time questioning her sanity. I mean, I don't do drugs, but I can certainly wax poetic on the existence of man and my place in the universe.
So, did I like her? No, not so much. Could I like her. I think so. I am afraid I would most likely be one of those she views with hostility and distrust because I just don't know how to help someone so damaged by the system. We are provided with a glimpse of at least one case worker who "gets it" and with whom she seems to be building rapport. That also seems fair as so few people "get" anything, why not this as well.
There is also quite a lot of patter about the use of swear words in the book. While I am not comfortable with dropping f-bombs and the other colorful words to express frustration, I again see this much more in line with the environment this girl was raised in. A deep and rich vocabulary is the privilege of a classroom education and a love of reading. While Anais is street smart she cannot deal with the traditional school setting.
On another level language has meaning only when we allow it to. What is it about certain words that make us cringe and others bring us to tears or others make us guffaw and snort with laughter. My impression is the characters in this story do not see the words they use to be any more or any less expressive or appropriate or inappropriate than any other word. I love words and I love alliteration, but again that is partly due to my background and love of reading. This was not a gift allowed the majority of characters in this story.
I found Anais to be much like I imagine we all are, someone who is a complicated mix of positive and negative attempting to make it through a complex and bewildering set of scenarios and continually disappointed by those who should be or should have been there to protect her as a child. By the end of the story I could not pity her as she proved herself to be clever, resourceful and driven towards a positive outcome. I can honestly say I would like to hear more of what happens to her beyond the close of this story.
Reading the book was enjoyable and I look forward to additional books by this author.
This book will be difficult for many people to read. It is written in British slang and many words I had to look up to understand exactly what she was trying to say. Luckily I read it on my Kindle and I am able to do that easily.
This author managed to make a very dark book based on a very disturbing story seem hopeful and at the end magical. There are many parts that leave you scratching your head thinking 'really? A 15 year old is doing this?'
I started it and could not put it down. Those of you who like a very complex, sometimes dark but character rich story will love this book. Those of you who like more of a cozy or straight forward novel will probably not.
There are many disturbing chapters in this novel dealing with profanity,incest, rape, crime etc.
Fantastic book from a new author. I look forward to her next amazing novel.