Critically acclaimed in Britain, Scottish writer Fagan’s U.S. debut limns life in a last-resort residence for teen outcasts.
Like everyone else in the Panopticon, 15-year-old Anais Hendricks has been in and out of foster care practically since birth. “[B]orn in a nuthouse to nobody that was ever seen again,” she had her only successful foster placement with a prostitute later stabbed to death (Anais found the body). She’s been sent to this facility, where the inmates are under constant surveillance, because she had a bad history with a policewoman who has been bludgeoned into a coma, and Anais—almost permanently whacked on whatever drug she can lay her hands on—can’t explain why she has blood on her skirt. If the police can prove she did it, she’ll be locked up full-time until she’s 18; meanwhile, she enjoys the relative freedom of the Panopticon and forms intense bonds with other residents. Isla, whose self-cutting has worsened since she learned that she passed HIV to her twins, has a history grimly typical of the kids dumped here by an indifferent society. Anais, as her sympathetic support worker Angus notices, is stronger, smarter and more resilient than her hapless peers. Readers discern Anais’ difference from her first-person narration, a tart rendering in savory Scottish dialect of her bitter perceptions of the world that has no use for her, embodied in what she calls “the experiment,” a mysterious group to which she ascribes vaguely supernatural powers. It’s probably a delusion (remember all those drugs), but we’re never quite sure; an almost unrelievedly grim parade of events reinforces Anais’s perception that some sinister force is arrayed against her and her friends. The tentative happy ending snatched from near-certain disaster might seem like wish fulfillment if Fagan had not painted her battered characters’ fierce loyalty to each other with such conviction and surprising tenderness.
Dark and disturbing but also exciting and moving thanks to a memorable heroine and vividly atmospheric prose.