Publisher: Hogarth/Audible Studios
Publication Date: July 23rd, 2013/November 13th, 2012
Length: 322 pages/9 hours, 22 minutes
Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car. She is headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can't remember what’s happened, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and Anais’s school uniform is covered in blood.
Raised in foster care from birth and moved through twenty-three placements before she even turned seven, Anais has been let down by just about every adult she has ever met. Now a counter-culture outlaw, she knows that she can only rely on herself. And yet despite the parade of horrors visited upon her early life, she greets the world with the witty, fierce insight of a survivor.
Anais finds a sense of belonging among the residents of the Panopticon – they form intense bonds, and she soon becomes part of an ad hoc family. Together, they struggle against the adults that keep them confined. When she looks up at the watchtower that looms over the residents though, Anais knows her fate: she is an anonymous part of an experiment, and she always was. Now it seems that the experiment is closing in.
What Did I Think About the Book?
I was first drawn to The Panopticon after reading the synopsis. Right after college I worked with "troubled" kids, first as a Mental Health Associate in a Behavioral Health Center and then as a Behavioral Specialist at an alternative school, and Anais sounded like many of the kids I came into contact with during those years. I worked with kids that had experienced unspeakable childhoods and some that did horrible things, but what I learned from all of them was that each had learned how to survive and cope with the world they lived in the best they could. Many had been let down, time and time again, by those adults and institutions that were supposed to help them and keep them safe and were therefore incredibly suspicious of any that came into their lives. How could anyone blame them for that? This aspect of the story, combined with the mystery of whether or not Anais had harmed the policewoman and what part "the experiment" played in the whole thing, drew me in. While I can't say all my questions were answered by the last page I can say this character-driven story was powerful and heartbreaking, and important reading for anyone trying to understand the mind of children let down by the same society that views them as the problem.
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.
What Did I Think About the Cover?
It does absolutely nothing for me. I'm honestly not even sure what it's meant to represent.
My Rating: 3.5/5.0