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The Panopticon    by Jenni Fagan order for
by Jenni Fagan
Order:  USA  Can
Crown, 2013 (2013)
Hardcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

If you're up for a harrowing but highly satisfying read, poet and debut novelist Jenni Fagan's Panopticon will steal your sleep. And if you're wondering about the title, a panopticon is 'A circular prison with cells so constructed that the prisoners can be observed at all times.' Fagan's fifteen-year-old heroine Anais Hendricks grew up in Scottish foster care with over twenty-seven placements before the age of seven. She feels constantly watched.

As the novel opens Anais is under investigation for an attack that left a policewoman in a coma. Handcuffed, her school uniform covered in blood, she is escorted by police to Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. Anais dreads being locked up permanently (she and her peers know that they're all 'just in training for the proper jail') but it seems clear that she's racing nonstop in that direction. Fortunately for her, this facility's secure unit badly needs renovation and funds are lacking.

After the obligatory fight, Anais gets to know the other troubled residents of the facility (as does the reader). Though not exactly friends, they look out for each other as best they can. They use drugs and share what they have. Anais's social worker returns from vacation but clearly does not have her back. Anais is questioned again about the attack on the policewoman, whom she had threatened in the past. With all this against her, what resources does she have? She regularly plays the birthday game, in which she imagines a totally different life, from birth onwards.

Think it would be hard to relate to a character like this? Not so. Anais cares for her peers and is surprisingly likeable as she continues down her self-destructive path, while few adults in her life do anything to help her. Fortunately this 'girl with a shark's heart' is a survivor; her story is haunting, an absolute must read.

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