Elephant matriarchs who don’t want to share their bananas: reading Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon

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Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon will take your breath away. Not in the metaphorical romance novel way. The Panopticon will take your breath away in the manner a punch in the stomach does; all at once and leaving you gasping for air. I finished it twenty-four hours ago and I have yet to exhale fully. The novel has been out for about a year in North America but Fagan doesn’t have the sort of big-name recognition of other debut novel heavy hitters like Junot Diaz or Jonathan Safran Foer. She should. Perhaps the bestiality in Fagan’s text is a harder sell than the fukú in Diaz’s Perhaps her characters are less sympathetic. But you should probably read her book anyway.

Anais Hendricks. She’s the fifteen year old protagonist, sent to the Panopticon; a home for juvenile offenders. She’s a “lifer” meaning she’s been in social care for her entire life. Anais spends most of the novel high on whatever she can get her hands on. Sometimes Anais does bad things. Usually bad things are happening to Anais. Anais has learned to expect the worst of people and she’s one of the most tragic characters you’ll ever read. Consider the following exchange, wherein  Anais is explaining to a fellow “inmate” why she hates elephants (edited a bit for length here):

“Look–if you’re an elephant, you’re only alright if you belong! Like if you’re in the pride or the tribe, or whatever the fuck it is they live in. It’s like the group, the family; if you’re in that and you’ve got a ma and a da, or some auntie elephants or some cousins – then you’re alright. They’ll play football with you. They’ll protect you if the lions come, and if you drown in the river they’ll be right sad about it; they’ll stand over your body and sing you some nice fucking songs. They’ll even bury you with branches. But if you’re an orphan? Ye’ll starve. Tae death. Alone. You’ll stand there until you’re fucking emaciated. If you approach them, they’ll kick you in the pus, and tell you tae get tae fuck.

“Maybe it’s a strain on resources if they need tae feed an extra mouth?”

“Aye – well, maybe it’s not that. Maybe elephant matriarchs are just mean old fucks, maybe they dinnae want tae share their bananas.”

Can you breathe right now? Thinking a child who has spent her whole life as a ward of the state and why she might not be as charmed by elephant families as the rest of us? There are a great many things that I no longer view in the same way because of Anais’s thoughts on elephants.

I want to go back to the Junot Diaz comparison for a bit. One of the reasons I love his work is the important role of accented English. When you finish a Diaz book you’re rolling your R’s and adding a Dominican lilt to your words, no doubt raising your spouse’s eyebrows. Fagan manages the same feat, using the written word to communicate the unique language of Scottish kids. I can only imagine how difficult it is to apply local dialect throughout a text, with consistency and without appearing cartoonish. When it’s done properly it places the reader alongside the characters in a unique and important way.

A book like The Panopticon need the reader to feel close to the characters to succeed. On it’s face the book is just about a group of kids but of course it’s about more than that. It is about the effects of growing up a ward of the state, it is about the awful social care system in the UK (not that we’re doing any better in North America). I’m not going to go on about the “lessons” in the book. I’ll just encourage you to read it and then to examine your preconceptions about people and the situations in which they find themselves.

If I’ve made this sound like a grim read… it’s hard not to. That said, The Panopticon ends on a hopeful note. I don’t know if everything works out ok for Anais after she makes her escape but that there is a chance for a decent future – that has to be enough.

Kind thanks to Crown Publishing’s Blogging for Books program for the review copy of The Panopticon.

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