Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

pan·op·ti·con  /paˈnäptiˌkän/- noun.  A circular prison with cells arranged around a central well, from which prisoners could at all times be observed. Oxford English Dictionary

Anais Hendricks is unlike any fifteen-year-old you've probably ever met.  Orphaned by a woman who gave birth at a mental hospital and then disappeared, Anais has spent her entire life in the foster care system in Scotland.  As the book opens, we find our lead character in the back of a police car (a rather normal occurrence for Anais) headed to a new group home.  This home is actually the Panopticon; a former mental institution with 24/7 surveillance.  The Panopticon is used to house the most serious juvenile offenders and Anais soon finds herself in the company of a handful of teens who are either A. broken, B. mentally unstable, C. violent or D. all of the above.  But Anais doesn't have to work very hard to prove her status in this new home since her reputation has reached the doors before the police car: Anais is suspected of beating a policewoman so badly that she is now in a coma.  Anais, however, was higher than a kite at the time of the crime and can remember nothing.  

The story is told from Anais' point of view and is filled with her frustration with the system (it's amazing what the social workers don't ask), her dreams and commentary about "the experiment" and flashbacks to her adoptive mother who was murdered when Anais was still young.  Anais, like many kids in foster care homes, bonds quickly and deeply with her fellow "inmates" and they become a new family unit.  When the threat of throwing Anais into a secure lock-up until she can be placed in a regular jail looms near, and devastating events throw her new family into chaos, Anais must decide if she is going to the criminal everyone in the foster system assumes she is or if she will discover her true self.

This is a very gritty, realistic telling of a life that has always been hard.  One that probably won't get any better.  Anais talks openly about drug abuse, prostitution, child molesters, rape and AIDS.  Fagan writes Anais' voice completely in Scottish dialect which can take some getting used to.  Ultimately, if Fagan's goal was to shine a harsh light on the modern-day foster car system, she has succeeded.  Readers will potentially be horrified by the experiences Anais has lived through in The Panopticon, but will want to cheer for her to become a healthy, independent person.