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Jenni Fagan: Panopticon

As Jenni Fagan tells us right at the beginning, a panopticon is A circular prison with cells so constructed that the prisoners can be observed at all times. Anais Hendricks is being sent to one at the beginning of this novel. I do not know whether Fagan was ever sent to one or, indeed, to any other such institution, but we do know that, like Anais, Jenni Fagan spent her childhood in care homes, foster families and two unsuccessful adoption families. Anais has been moved around from care home to care home, from foster family to foster family. She is now approaching the age of sixteen and has never knowingly met anyone she is related to. She has also committed more than one hundred offences, including many drug offences (using and dealing), theft, assault, arson and breaking curfew and home arrest orders. She has now been accused of assaulting a policewoman and putting her in a coma. Anais was found with the policewoman, with blood on her clothes. Anais will later maintain that the blood is that of a squirrel and that she was too wasted to remember what really happened but she is certain that she did not assault the policewoman, despite having a long history with her from previous arrests.

Much of the novel is about Anais’ stay in the panopticon, along with the other residents who are either in care (having no parent or other person to look after them) or who, like Anais, have committed a crime. Naturally, Anais and many of the others are rebels and anti-authority. Drug use is rife. Petty crime seem to be the norm. One of the female inmates is a prostitute. The residents (I am calling them that though there is an interesting discussion between both the residents and the staff as to the correct term to use for them) are allowed out, including Anais, as she has yet to be charged with any crime regarding PC Craig. They abuse this right continually. The enemy are, of course, the staff and social workers. Anais grudgingly admits that Angus, one of the social workers is not bad but, on the whole, she and the other residents are always looking at ways of getting round the rules and doing that they want, which includes drug use and theft. Anais has one other enemy – the experiment, the name she gives to what she sees as the organisation of nose-less people who control her life, from birth to death, and who are out to get her.

Anais is a habitual criminal, drug user and a violent person. (She claims not to like violence but will use it when necessary, as she does on two occasions in this book.) She is an out-and-out rebel and also an out-and-out outcast. She has a (sort of) boyfriend, who is prison and facing retribution for failing to pay some drug-related debts. He texts Anais, telling her that he loves he and wants to be with her when he gets out. She half-believes him, though her real love seems to have been a another girl she had been at school with but who had moved away from the area. Yet you cannot help feeling for her, giving the difficult life she has led (finding her favourite foster mother, a prostitute, stabbed to death is probably the worst but certainly not the only nasty event in her life). And she has her own moral code, which you might not agree with but must admire. Aye. Aye, I do. It’s this: here is what you don’t know – I’d lay down and die for someone I loved; I’d fuck up anyone who abused a kid, or messed with an old person. Sometimes I deal, or I trash things, or I get in fights, but I am honest as fuck and you’ll never understand that. I’ve read books you’ll never look at, danced to music you couldnae appreciate, and I’ve more class, guts and soul in my wee finger than you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable fucking life.

For most readers, this life is completely alien and one we cannot fully comprehend. Perhaps, like the judge Anais appears before, we feel that Anais is a habitual offender and she will and should spend the rest of her days in jail. But Fagan, both as a former care-home resident and as a prison writer, is presumably very familiar with this life and knows what these people go through and that drug use, rebellion, petty (and, sometimes, not so petty) crime and continual swearing are the only way out for them. She tells her story very well, to the extent that we do sympathise with Anais, despite the fact that most of us would probably want to have little if anything to do with her if we met her in real life, and this book will very much be an eye-opener for most readers.

Publishing history

First published 2012 by William Heinemann