Anais Hendricks is only fifteen years old when she finds herself in the back of a police car on her way to the Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can't remember how the blood got on her school uniform but she is almost certain that she didn't beat a police woman into a coma, as she has been accused of doing.
To say Anais' life hasn't been easy would be the ultimate understatement. She has never known her mother or her father and has been in care for as long as she can remember. Moved from one bad situation to the next she is, by the age of fifteen, an expert when it comes to sex and drugs; or maybe not so much an expert as a heavy user. Anais' past is bleak enough to break the strongest person, her present is scary and her future really doesn't hold any positive prospects, yet Anais manages to hang on to hope. In order not to succumb to desperation Anais has created her own personal history as well as her own vision of what her future will look like.
The Panopticon is a sort of last-chance-saloon for youngsters who can't be trusted to live anywhere else. Built in such a way that the residents can never have privacy; the place seems to confirm all of Anais' suspicions about the world. She "knows" she is part of an experiment and that "they" are constantly watching her; every minute of every day "the experiment" is observing her, waiting for her to destroy herself. At the same time, the Panopticon is also the place where Anais finds friends, people to care about, who care about her. Of course, caring about people also means that whatever happens to them suddenly starts to matter to you. For Anais the Panopticon is a last chance before they lock her up until she is 18 and life seems determined to make sure she'll fail this last opportunity.
This story is set in Scotland, and the use of certain Scottish expressions reminds the reader of that. I firmly believe though that Anais' story could have been set anywhere. Anybody, regardless of where they live in this world, will have seen and heard the stories about kids who fall between the cracks in the system. This is the story of one of them; a story that will break your heart and make you smile. But most of all, a story that needs telling.
It is not always easy to establish what is real and what is imagination in this book. The lines are blurred. Anais' use of drugs and alcohol makes her an unreliable narrator and yet the way in which she tells her story makes it very easy to believe everything she shares with the reader. I found myself admiring her for the simple fact that she is still alive, loving her for her hopes, dreams and plans and despairing about every single mistake she makes. At times it is almost impossible to believe that this character is only fifteen. So much that should never happen to anybody has already happened to her at this young age, that it seems a miracle that she is still alive to tell the tale. And yet, despite everything life has thrown at her, Anais continues to believe that a better future is possible for her. Life and "the experiment" may be out to get her; they'll have to catch her first.
On the surface this is a very bleak story. It is very hard to read about Anais and the other youngsters in the Panopticon and not have your heart break time and again. Anais' voice is so vibrant and real that it is almost too easy to picture her real-life equivalent trying to survive somewhere in the world. And yet, this book is as warm as it is bone-chilling. The youngsters in the institution form a family of their own; they look after each other, share what they have, feel each others pain and enjoy each other's triumphs. In all their dysfunction they are a close-knit and loyal group of friends.
This is a very realistic book, at times painfully so. And that is hardly surprising, considering that Jenni Fagan spent her own youth in the care system. She clearly knows what she's writing about and gives us a vivid and balanced picture of a life lived outside society's perceived norm. So there are no magical happy-endings or sudden changes in fortune. What we do get is a spirited, brave and fragile teenager trying to survive against the odds; a girl who appears to be only one step away from destruction and yet refuses to give up on her dreams. This amazing book manages to be both a condemnation of all that is wrong in our society and the care system in particular, and a wonderful testament to a person's will to live a better life, all at the same time. It is no surprise that Jenni Fagan was included in Granta's list of twenty most promising British authors under the age of 40. If she can bring her clear voice and wonderful storytelling skills to future books, Jenni Fagan is one writer we will be hearing a lot more about in years to come.