Reading in the Desert

…a bookworm in Dubai

The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

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The Panopticon

Shortlisted for the 2013 Desmond Elliott Prize. Chosen for the 2012 Waterstones 11 list of debut fiction.

The Panopticon is a care home in Scotland for the most vulnerable and disturbed children and it is where our heroine, Anais Hendricks, is sent after she puts a police officer in hospital. This is a gritty novel that gives a damning indictment on the care system and its failings. “Care” is a contradiction in terms where the youngsters are exposed to a world of underage sex, drugs and violence and abuse from the very adults who are supposed to look after them. Although I am fortunate enough to not have experienced the care system myself, reviews of this novel by those that have suggest that the author has described the system extremely well and illustrated not just the obvious problems but the subtleties and nuances too. Whilst life is tough for these kids they also form bonds and look out for each other in an us against them scenario although ultimately are on their own surviving until they reach 16 and are let out into the big wide world and left to their own devices.

The main protagonist, Anais, is a wonderfully complex character. Hard as nails and yet so vulnerable, she gets into some shocking situations and no one is truly looking after her interests. But at the same time she refuses any help offered and rejects authority; bright and witty, she refuses to go to school. But somehow we know that Anais is different, she has the intelligence and toughness to find a way out and a better life for herself instead of the inevitable path into crime, drugs and prostitution that her contemporaries seem destined for. For the reader she is exasperating, we are rooting for her and want to protect her but then she goes and does something that’ll get her into more trouble.

The author sets out the problems of the care system but does not offer any solutions. She is making the reader think, not just as they are reading but long after they have finished the book, how can the system be made to work effectively for these young people? Number one, the adults working in it must have the children’s best interests in mind and not be there to abuse and take advantage of them. But after that it is complicated – you can’t make children who are fighting the system and distrustful of it work hard at school and stay away from drugs, for example. At the end of the book we are optimistic for Anais, but can she really just walk away from her past and change her life for the better? We hope so.

4 stars

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