Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Panopticon by Janni Fagan

You have to do the first things first--you have to begin at the beginning. This is the last time, I will never do this again. Begin at the beginning, pick a birth. You have tae do it like it is important, like it counts.

Anais Hendricks doesn’t belong anywhere. An orphan who’s spent her whole life being shuffled from foster home to foster home, she doesn’t even know her real name, let alone her real parents, and, when The Panopticon opens, she’s on the way to the titular institution, a sort of asylum/juvvie hybrid, accused of putting a police officer into a coma.

Not one to play the victim, Anais makes no particular effort to get her readers on her side--she is who she is, sex, drugs, bad attitude and all, from the first page. Thing is, Anais and her companions at The Panopticon feel like real, fleshed-out people, not marionettes. There are no out-of-character moments of sentimentality, no “I had a messed up childhood” confessions, but by the time the story ended, I was genuinely horrified and moved by the stories of these poor, lost souls looking for peace. Particularly moving was the relationship between Tash and Shortie, a terminal cutter and a “tough girl”, culminating in (MINOR SPOILERS) an impromptu wedding on a boat outing.

I keep coming back to the characters because this is a story about people, not about plot. Although Jenni Fagan, in her debut(!) novel, keeps things moving and even manages to deliver a couple gut-punches, the people are the real narrative, their stories, some of which go largely untold, some of which end sadly, but all of which feel achingly real.

I feel like, in some ways, The Panopticon made me a little better person--less prone to judge, more empathetic. It opened my eyes to a world I wasn't familiar with in a way that only novels really can. I recommend it without reservation, allowing that it gets pretty gritty and intense, to anyone who cares about people, and the forces that make them who they are. Or, if they just like a good story, well-told.

An admission, and an apology: Admission first: I really loved The Panopticon. It’s one of the best books I’ve read this year and one of the best first novels I’ve ever read. Now the apology: I finished it and then circumstances kept me from writing my review while it was still fresh on my mind. Any shortcomings in this review are a result of that delay.


R.M. Fiedler said...

Why the title "Panopticon?"

Brent Waggoner said...

There's an actual Panopticon at the home she spends most of the book in. And more broadly, she's tormented by paranoid delusions a secret society tracking and controlling her every move, a sort of mental panopticon.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for being on the tour!