Book Review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

panopticon Pa`nop´ti`con ( noun). A circular prison with cells so constructed that the prisoners can be observed at all times. [Greek panoptos ‘seen by all’]
Anais Hendricks, fifteen, is in the back of a police car, headed for the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can’t remember the events that led her here, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and there is blood on Anais’s school uniform. Smart, funny and fierce, Anais is a counter-culture outlaw, a bohemian philosopher in sailor shorts and a pillbox hat. She is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met.

The residents of the Panopticon form intense bonds, heightened by their place on the periphery, and Anais finds herself part of an ad-hoc family there.

Much more suspicious are the social workers, especially Helen, who is about to leave her job for an elephant sanctuary in India but is determined to force Anais to confront the circumstances of her birth before she goes. Looking up at the watchtower that looms over the residents, Anais knows her fate: she is part of an experiment, she always was, it’s a given, a liberty – a fact. And the experiment is closing in.

Received in ebook format from the publishers via

This is not what I expected it to be, and in a good way. Set somewhere in Scotland, the 15 year old Anais is on her way to the Panopticon, a children’s unit, whilst a police woman is in a coma in hospital, having been koshed around the head. Everyone believes that Anais did it and it’s just a case of proving it.

Anais has been a damaged child from the beginning, having been born to an unnamed mother, who promptly fled the scene. She’s been in care ever since and has been from pillar to post, rarely finding stability and friends. She has however, found drugs, drink, prostitution, underage sex, and violence, and her most frequent boyfriend is in jail, desperate for cash to pay off some debts.

In the Panopticon she finds some of what she needs, in the friendships she finds there, mainly in the other girls, all of whom are as equally damaged. Every step of the way however, Anais feels she is being watched by those in the Watchtower and being followed by those performing the Experiment. Her struggle to make some sense of her world means she attempts to reinvent herself, with her ideal of living in Paris one of her favourites.

This is not a book for the easily offended or of a nervous disposition. There is a LOT of swearing (including words I’d never heard before in those chosen combinations). There are “trigger” situations that some people may struggle with. The book is a 1st person narrative of a 15 year old Scottish lass, so an understanding of Scottish (Glasgow?) dialect will make it easier to read.

I rarely give 5 stars to any book, but I cant think of a reason not to give it one.


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