The Panopticon

Jenni Fagan
Paperback £8.99 Cornerstone ISBN: 9780099558644
by Hilary Bell

A Suitable End

April 10, 2017 | by Hilary Bell

M. Forster, in Aspects of the Novel, said that nearly every novel’s ending is “feeble”. A conclusion is often written just for the sake of it, to the detriment of the characters, with novelists completing their novel with either a marriage or a death. But with Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon, published in 2012, the ending poses a different problem. It sits in frank juxtaposition to the rest of the novel, finishing on a gloriously sunshiney high note and prompting the question: what really constitutes a suitable ending to a book?

The Panopticon follows teenage Anais after her new arrival at a children’s home. She has been in care for all of her life, her prostitute foster mother was murdered, and Anais is now accused of battering a police woman who lies in a coma. The outcome looks bleak.

But Fagan’s protagonist is anything but bleak. Anais is bubbly, likeable and immediately becomes good friends with the other “inmates” – as the teenagers call themselves – of the “Panopticon”, the name of the care home. Her social workers like her, arguing her case in court and scrounging a few more days at the home before she is sent off to a secure unit. She saves her money every month to buy wonderfully flamboyant clothes: red hats and sunglasses shaped like stars.

The characterisation of Anais is superb, bolstered by a lively first person narrative voice that inhabits a Scottish accent. Her voice is personable and real. It’s chatty, and the overall effect is that the reader has a direct line to Anais’ thoughts, in a more ordered type of stream of consciousness. “I hate. Her face. The thick hair on his neck. I hate the way the policeman turns the wheel. What is worse though, is this nowhere place. There’s nae escape.” The rhythm of the words zings throughout the book.

The book is fraught with drugs, underage drinking, sex, swear words and everything in between. At one point, Anais is gang-raped, a scene which is sensitively portrayed in Fagan’s prose. When a friend is killed, the book manipulates details to show the impact of the death; the trope of a hand resonates: “Her left hand is open… Her hand is out”. The pale white hand outstretched symbolising the inevitable destruction of children in care which Anais so often acknowledges, as the only directions she can envisage for herself are either dying or spending the rest of her life in different institutions. Anais says: “The experiment have to raise the game, aye. They have to break you. That’s the point…”. The book examines the cycle of problems in which teenagers in social care can easily become embroiled. Anais later says, “I’m getting out”.

And thus comes the issue with the ending; Anais does “get out”. She’s on a train heading to Paris as she says “I –begin today”. It’s bursting with hope and sits awkwardly with the rest of the book, which, despite our protagonist’s upbeat personality, shows a painful and depressing line of events. I want Paris and happiness and hope to be true, but the plot of the book suggest that Anais won’t be able to heal her scars so quickly.

“Vive Le Dream” is the penultimate sentence – roaring the happy conviction that Anais indeed will be okay. The book is a disheartening exposition of life in care, but through it all, Anais manages to keep her dreams alive. Despite the jarringly cheery – but definitely not “feeble” – ending, and with the wonderfully alive narrative voice, through death, drugs and destruction, a hopeful spirit is exactly what Fagan’s novel portrays.

Hilary Bell started her own book blog in 2017, http://hilaryalison.tumblr.com/. She currently works as an editor for an Edinburgh publishing company and has previously had articles published in various publications including The Telegraph.

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