The PanopticonThe Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
My rating: 4/5 cats
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does the word “fuck” make you uncomfortable? if so, you will not like this book.

this is not a YA novel. i am embarrassed at how long it took me to clock that. pages and pages of densely-crowded and repetitious “fucks” and “cunts” and wanking, prostitution, rapes, drugs, graphic violence, suicide, and my only thought was “wow, european YA is so progressive…”

but no. not every book with a teenage protagonist is a YA book. lesson learned. lesson should have been learned after Pure and The God of Animals, but i am a slow learner.

i had about a million misconceptions going into this book. in my defense, the wonderful laima sent it to me, as it is not published in my country, because she thought i would like it: girl covered in blood, victim in a coma, no memory of how she got here. oh, yes, that just screams “me” all over it. i was amped.

so but judging by its cover and brief synopsis, i assumed it was dysto-YA with some fantasy elements. you know, flying cat and all. panopticon. teenaged protagonist.

but a thousand times no.

this is a story set in a horrible reality, not some imagined hell, but one that exists for many young people; a girl born in a mental asylum to an unknown woman who was picked up off the street, and who absconded immediately after giving birth, brought up in the foster-care system, prone to violence, and almost constantly high on anything and everything.

she has most recently been transferred to the panopticon after an incident which has left a policewoman in a coma.

i’m not really sure why fagan chose the panopticon for the setting, apart from the fact that it is a really cool benthamian/foucaultian concept. but it didn’t seem as though it was really being taken advantage of. it was, essentially, an unmonitored co-ed panopticon, where the residents were free to leave the facility to go on dates, or cause a little ruckus, or go shopping, as though they were not supposed to be monitored at all times. so that was a little question mark for me, but despite my (mild) disappointment that we didn’t get a “true” panopticon, the story was gripping and one of those “hope under seemingly unlivable circumstances” novels that really gets under your skin and makes you want to reach out to the characters with all you’ve got.

and i loved the characters. all of them. books like this “teens in trouble” with a large cast of characters, you usually get a rainbow of situations; you get an anorectic and a sociopath and a cutter and a pyromaniac etc etc, and that is also pretty true here, but it doesn’t feel strained, as though the author is trying to catalog every form of psychological defect just for some representational checklist. although we didn’t get as much time with them as i would have liked, the moments we did get really shone with compassion and a light touch. these characters never came across as stereotypes;they were very authentic-feeling, particularly anais. part of that was because books written in dialect (this one scottish) force you into the character’s skin a little bit, and part of it was the claustrophobic nature of anais’ thought-patterns, and even though most of her actions were dictated by whatever drug she was on at the time.

the “very big thing” that happens at the end of this book (to anais, not the other horrible thing) was completely unexpected. i in no way saw it coming. and i hated it. hated it! not as a reader disappointed with an author’s choice, but just outraged that this is something that happens and makes you want to go out and be a masked avenger and crack some skulls because you feel so helpless.

my only complaint is that this book doesn’t really answer all of the questions it sets up. it is more like the author has taken a dome and plopped it on top of a situation, and anything that got cut off by these barriers, well, you aren’t going to get any resolution to that. tfb.

and that’s fine – as a “slice-of-life” novel that focuses on a character in difficult situation, it is great, and it is enough.

it would be a great companion-read to Lullabies for Little Criminals, where a young girl is living a life under extreme circumstances that the reader identifies as such, but the character knows no other way of living and sees it as normal, and the horror, through her innocent eyes, is almost charming. in this book, the character is a little older, a little more savvy, and the sweetness and light is harder to find. and yet there are moments of pure beauty and love and View Spoiler »

not YA, but definitely YAY.

yeah, sorry about that…

read my reviews on goodreads

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