Anais Hendricks is not your typical 15 year old. Instead of living in a comfortable suburban home, she is on her way to juvenile detention. Though she does not remember the details of her latest crime (there are too many past offenses for her to count), she cannot deny that there is a policewoman in a coma. Since she is considered a chronic offender, she is sent to The Panopticon, a sort of last resort for juvenile delinquents. The Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan, chronicles her time there.
Anais is no novice to the ways of child welfare agencies. She trusts no one—not the other residents of The Panopticon, nor the well-meaning counselors and doctors who are in charge of her care. Her parents have little part of her life, and the person who took the best care of her was a prostitute who ended up dead in a bathtub. Anais’s is filled with broken relationships, severe drug abuse, and hopelessness.
This book is trying to make a point. It succeeds on that level. The Panopticon is no place for vulnerable young people. The counselors, ostensibly trained to deal with troubled youth, are powerless and naïve to the drug use, sexual relationships, and conflicts between the youth. I felt horrible for any child in such a system.
But I hated every single character in this book, including Anais. The Panopticon is told from Anais’s point of view, and at times, it felt almost like stream of consciousness writing. The trouble is that Anais is so irredeemable that I found nothing likeable about her. I was not rooting for her. I was just exhausted by her musings and circular thinking. As a reader, I did not feel as though I really knew any other character in the book. They all seemed as cardboard cutouts, merely there to serve as someone to annoy Anais or allow her to get in another fight.
The language in this story is difficult as well. It is written with a lot of Scottish/British phrases that were difficult to deal with. They did not make the book incomprehensible—they just made me not want to read it anymore. They felt like an affectation, rather than a necessary literary device.
As a final note, I cannot overstate how many instances of distasteful subjects are in this book. Rape, prostitution, murder, assault, profanity, and extremely liberal drug use are prevalent in this book. I found nothing to hold onto as a positive in The Panopticon. Even a slightly hopeful ending didn’t work for me. I did not believe the existence of even a slightly happy ending for this character.
Literary and more a social justice commentary than a novel, The Panopticon is a dismal look at young lives and an indictment of society’s inability to help them.
*I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Regina