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Sensitive readers will want to skip this debut novel. The Panopticon isn't a horror or suspense story but the there is a constant low-level feeling of anxiety that something awful will happen and then it does. Repeatedly in various ways. Also avoid this book if drug use, mental illness, violence of all types, and profanity bother you since every page is rife with just about all of the above.
I didn't dislike this book even though it is distressing, a little unstructured, and a whole lot darker than I was expecting. That aside, it also has a brilliant emotional build-up that mirrors Anais's mindset. Her narration begins much as she is: defiant, hard, and resistant. As she adjusts to her latest group home, the titular Panopticon, full of battered unexpected angels, her scarred spirit uncurls and her voice warms. This is how the book began to engage me. When I started the book each chapter felt like reviewer purgatory and I was waiting to hit my 75-100-page "giving up" limit, but as Anais started to care, incrementally, so did I, until I was reading compulsively as long as I could. How Fagan executes this is pure virtuoso.
Anais's upbringing is a nightmare of institutional incompetence, but governments were never meant to be parents or raise sentient beings. Given the what she is a product of...or a lack thereof, her beauty as a person is a construct of her own design, much like her fashion sense. She is as feral a child can be in a modern society, but has a real, honestly developed code of honor and values, something admirable over those that are followed merely by doctrine or habit, and whose believers would no doubt judge Anais as an amoral degenerate thug.
Of course the danger of caring is vulnerability and we and Anais are not exempt from this cosmic law. Her past is tragic but what is it about what doesn't kill you making you stronger? Since she has survived, we get to experience the latest with her. In some instances that aforementioned tense vibe prepared me for something worse than what happened, or I predicted an outcome that disappointed by obliging. Still there are plenty of surprises, both pleasant and not, in the chorus of residents and staff at the Panopticon, and they are the author's greatest strength.
Jenni Fagan is a poet and the language of The Panopticon has a peculiar musicality that confounds then soothes you, a profane lullaby. The lexicon of this grim social stratus takes some interpreting, literally, and at least an American audience would benefit from a glossary.