When I picked up The Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan, the cover and the description on the inside flap of the book made it sound like a psychological thriller: a teenaged Scottish orphan “is an anonymous part of an experiment, and she always was. Now it seems that the experiment is closing in.” It made me think of Firestarter by Stephen King or, to go old school, 1977’s I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. Unfortunately, the book was not what I thought it would be. The “experiment” is just what Anais calls the hands of fate, or the powers that be, that seem to be conspiring to make her life in and out of foster care and group homes a living hell. Her struggles with drugs, crime and a lack of a sense of identity have plagued her from a young age, and the novel details how she survives, bruised and scarred, and eventually tries to reinvent herself. It is a fine book, compelling as a story of realistic fiction, but when I was expecting one genre and got a totally different one, I was disappointed. It’s like when you gulp from a glass expecting water and instead it’s milk . . . neither drink tastes bad, but you’re surprised and a little put off.
I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes to read about survivors of dysfunctional families, foster care, or drug abuse. The cast of characters is moving and heartbreaking, starting with the narrator, Anais, and her now-dead adoptive mother Theresa, a prostitute with a big heart. The friends that Anais makes at Panopticon, the group home she’s placed in while under investigation for assault on a police officer, are diverse and interesting. There are several wildly imaginative trippy scenes, some literal as a result of drug use and others more profound as Anais tries to understand her place in the world.
One challenge to reading the book is the Scottish slang, which you can usually figure out from the context. The bigger issue is the Scottish dialect, words like “cannae” for cannot, “tae” for “to” and “dinnae” for don’t. Scotland is one of those countries that speaks English, but a version that sounds very different from what we speak in the U.S. It took some getting used to. One last thing, there is generous use of the f— word so if that offends, then this book is not for you. There is also one brutal assault scene that could disturb some readers.