Book Review: The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

panopticonThis book made a lot of year-end best-of lists a few years ago and was generally really well reviewed. I finally got around to reading it and I dunnae get it. Anais is a lost soul – orphaned at birth and raised in various group and foster homes and for awhile by a prostitute with a heart of gold who gets murdered in their apartment. So you get it, why she is so messed up. I thought that overall the author did a good job of creating a really really troubled character who is also somewhat likeable, despite not fully believing some of the characteristics.

In the beginning, Anais is moved to a new home, The Panopticon, after being accused of putting a police officer in a coma. Anais doesn’t think she did it, but does so many drugs that she might not remember properly. Most of the book is about her time in the home and her interactions with the other troubled teens.

So much of the book is in Anais’ head that you don’t get any feel for the other characters. This intense focus on Anais was also problematic with the pacing. Her swirling thoughts (often drug addled) went on for pages and I didn’t think contributed effectively to the overall story or tone.

The storyline was gritty, ugly and rough but I knew that going in so it wasn’t a complete shock. There were occasions of dark humor, and that tempered the disturbing elements of the storyline in a really good way. The scene where the staff from the home take the kids to the park in the van and ride the boats out was a joy to read because it had the right balance of dark humor, stress, problems, and hope. But that balance is hard and this is where I think the book didn’t work for me in the end. Yes, Anais is likeable, but I found my sympathy (and ultimately, believability) for her waver too.

There are a lot of red flags: language, rape, drug use, prostitution, described violence, mental illness, and lastly Scottish accents.

Stars: 3

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