“The Panopticon” is one of the best-written, saddest, most-moving and triumphant coming-of-age novels I’ve ever read—easily one of the best books of 2013—and I have absolutely no damned idea how to review it.
I love books like that, books that are so original that they defy easy analysis. So many novels today have almost identical plots: a stranger comes to a new town; there’s a meet-cute between two people who initially hate each other then grow to love each other, and work to save an imperiled city/world/bunch of puppies, all followed by a nice, sunny denouement where everyone “good” is—for the moment—safe and happy.
Same circus, different clowns.
Jenni Fagan’s debut novel, “The Panopticon,” defies classification. It doesn’t fit neatly into any genre. “The Panopticon” marches steadily through one girl’s hell, showing us her tough present situation, while following a trail of breadcrumbs and blood droplets through her nightmare past.
“The Panopticon” does not play nicely with the other books on the shelf.
Anais Hendrickson is fifteen-years-old. She was born in a mental institution to a mother who disappeared almost immediately. She’s been in and out of dozens of foster families and institutions, noting that the sum of her belongings always fits in three garbage bags. She smokes, drinks, does a wide variety of drugs, and has had sex for money, for love, and by force. She’s grown-up hard, committing nearly innumerable crimes, from vandalism to attempted murder.
All along, the one thing she’s been able to cling to is “the experiments,” her dead certainty that she’s being watched constantly by a bunch of men with shiny shoes and no noses on their faces.
Irrational? Yes, but she clings to this, because no matter where she goes, people disappear or die on her. Her biological mother was gone within hours of her birth. She found one beloved foster mother murdered in a bathtub. The alternative to “the experiments” is crushing guilt that she caused their deaths.
To say Anais is scarred defies overestimation. “Anais Hendrickson” isn’t even her real name. It’s the fourth name she’s had, one somebody picked out for her.
Anais stands accused of beating a female police officer into a coma. There isn’t enough evidence to arrest her yet. The authorities are convinced she committed the crime. Anais is just as certain she didn’t, though she was so wasted that she can’t remember where she was that night.
We meet Anais in the back of a police car, when she’s being driven to The Panopticon, a semi-secure facility for troubled teens. We see her make friends and enemies, and she ultimately finds that, in a strange way, she’s landed in a sort of family. She likes her social worker, Angus, who goes to bat for her. She’s friends with many of her fellow “guests.” She’s even grown to feel at home there in her small room.
But her past catches up to her. The specter of the comatose police officer hangs over her head, of course, but there’s more. Once again, people she loves start disappearing and dying on her. Anais isn’t complicit in their deaths, but the all-pervading sense of loss, of emptiness, has tracked her down. She tries to escape into the arms of a former lover. This nearly ends tragically. Finally, she’s left with no other course but the most brazen and desperate.
“The Panopticon” is told through Anais’s eyes. We’re privy to her thoughts—jumbled at times—and her terrible memories. We see the survival mechanisms she’s put in place just to keep her going some days.
Her mind is not a comfortable place to be.
Author Jenni Fagan is an award-winning poet, and her powerful use of language renders Anais’s life in stark, scary bursts. We follow Anais through rare warm patches and feelings of belonging, then we lurch back to disjointed bursts from her hellish past.
I’ve read hundreds of novels over the past few years. Some have been heartwarming, others full of adventure, some terrifying. However none of them pulled me in quite like “The Panopticon.” I felt like I was watching a horrifying documentary while somebody held down the fast forward button.
“The Panopticon” is one hell of a ride.
Most Highly Recommended
(nb: I received an advanced review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss)