Rummanah Aasi
"As specimens go, they always get excited about me. I'm a good one. A show-stopper. I'm the kind of kid they'll still enquire about ten years later. Fifty-one placements, drug problems, violence, dead adopted mum, no biological links, constant offending. Tick, tick, tick. I lure them in to being with. Cultivate my specimen face. They like that."  
  Jenni Fagan's Panopticon is a book completely out of my comfort zone, but thoroughly intrigued me with quotes such as the one above. I knew when I picked this book up that I would face some of these issues:
  • This book isn't appealing, entertaining, fun read.
  • This book isn't going to be about a girl who beats, stands up to the system.
  • This book wouldn't have a happy ending or even closure.
  • This book wouldn't have characters that I would like or could even support.
So, you're probably wondering, why bother? Well, I listened to an author interview on NPR and was really interested in learning about how other countries deal with hard pressing issues such as foster care. While I didn't love this book as much as others, I definitely learned a lot from it.


Description: 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.

Review: Jenni Fagan's Panopticon is not for the faint of heart, especially if you don't like books that are gritty, dark, and you are offended by strong language and drug usage. The Panopticon is centered on the philosophical institution of corrective behavior created by an English philosopher in the 18th century.


The concept of the circular and open design prison is to allow a single watchman to observe
inmates of an institution without them being able to tell whether they are being watched or not. Although it is physically impossible for the single watchman to observe all cells at once, the fact that the inmates cannot know when they are being watched means that all inmates must act as though they are watched at all times, effectively controlling their own behavior constantly. In Fagan's book the Panopticon is a reference to Scotland's temporary holding pen for foster children who are waiting for their next foster home.
  Anais Hendricks is unlike any character I've met before. She is full of contradictions and her story broke my heart into tiny shards. Anais has been a foster child since she was a toddler. She doesn't remember her parents and comes up with her own birth stories, fantasizing that she is a lost rich heir waiting to be found or a child of French artists who met a tragic end. The blurb of the book is a bit misleading, leading readers to believe it's more of a mystery of what occurred the night that Anais was found bloodied and hauled off the police after her foster mother is found stabbed to death and a police officer has been brutally assaulted. Though we are given clues about that night and there is an ongoing investigation, things are left hazy either due to Anais's high on drugs and eventual blackouts or maybe she just doesn't want to talk about it. I'm not really sure, but honestly I found myself less intrigued by the mysterious night and more enraptured by Anais's ad hoc family of lost children, who come alive in Fagan's story and their own heartbreaking back stories are revealed. The book is really a slice of Anais's life in the foster care system in all its messy and ugly pieces from children committing suicide when they reach adulthood and can no longer be in the system, dying from AIDS after working as a prostitute to earn wages, etc.
  It took me a while to get into The Panopticon, for two reasons. One reason is that the book is written in a Scottish dialect. I didn't always understand the slang and I had to read the dialogue aloud the first few times just to get adjusted to the dialect. I wish there was an audiobook available for the book, but I couldn't find one. The second reason is that I could only take the intense subject matter for only a few pages but then I had to put it down. I did find the book well written and eye opening, but I'm honestly not sure who I would recommend it to perhaps readers who enjoy intense stories and like stories set outside of the U.S.  

Rating: 3.5 stars

Words of Caution: Strong language and drug usage throughout the book. Sexual situations and violence including rape. Recommended for adults only.

If you like this book try: Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh , White Oleander by Janet Fitch, Brewster by Mark Slouka
5 Responses
  1. While this does sound fascinating, I can only handle dark and gritty in small doses so I don't think this is for me. I applaud you for taking a chance and reading outside your comfort zone!


  2. Oh I can see this teaching a lot, but not for me. I love my HEA because you aren't guaranteed to get one IRL, so I want one in my fiction. Still, it does sound compelling.


  3. Lauren D. Says:

    This sounds like a really intense read! It's probably not something I would pick up, but I'm glad you were affected by Anais's story, and that it taught you a lot about this grim world. Wonderful review!


  4. Aylee Says:

    Woah, I'm not sure I could handle a book with such intense subject matter. Maybe with breaks, like you did. It certainly sounds enlightening even if it's a far cry from entertaining.


  5. I actually really like the sound of this one, Rummanah. It sounds like an intense read but the premise is pretty awesome. I'm just a bit worried about the Scottish slang; hopefully it won't interfere too much with my reading experience.


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