“I'm rotten. There's something wrong with me. It's why nobody kept me."

Anais Hendricks is barely 15 but she feels old. She is a motherless child who has lived in many homes and has more criminal offenses than anyone would think possible for someone so young. She has gone through loss, trauma, sexual abuse and bullying—she has seen someone she loved being murdered, at times she consumes more drugs than she consumes food. She doesn’t know who she is but she feels she is being watched all the time. She might be the child of a social experiment but then again, this might just be drug-induced paranoia. Her social worker believes she has an identity problem and if she could just find out something about her past she might be able to sort herself out. But could it be this easy? Especially when said social work is so burned out herself she is about to quit? 

The story opens. Anais is on the back of a police car on the way to the Panopticon, a circular prison for young offenders where the prisoners are observed at all times, its threatening watchtower at its centre. She can’t exactly remember the events that led her here, her memory too jumbled up by the drugs she took that day but she is the principal suspect in the vicious attack on a policewoman who is now in a coma.

Anais’ only hope is to remember.

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But will her memory help or doom her for good?    

***

My heart.

I haven’t read such a heartwrenchingly difficult book in a while. Anais is one of the most compelling narrative voices I've read. It is what makes (or breaks) this book: The entire novel is a claustrophobic account that is narrated simultaneously with vibrant clarity and muddled ambiguity. Some of Anais’ recounting is done under drug-induced trips, some of it calls into question her mental sanity. This is a girl who has seen too much in her short life and who has been let down by just about everybody she has ever known.

Chiefly by the social care system that should have been her supportive net. One of the interesting things about The Panopticon is the way that it skirts the lines of both Speculative Fiction and Literary Fiction. Here in England, I have found it shelved in both sections of the book store. It is Speculative Fiction since it has the Panopticon at its centre, the lack of a working social system as its background and a narrative that is often twisty.

But it is also clearly a book that has roots on reality. The fundamental premise of the book seems to me to be: When the social care systems fails, everything fails.

There is a measure of freedom in the Panopticon. The kids are called “clients” by the social workers and they can come and go almost as they please. But this is really fake liberty—their doors are never closed unless a member of the staff does it and there is very little that the Panopticon’s staff can even do in the first place, as willing as they are to help. When those kids reach them, they have already gone through far too much hell.

The question is then: Is there salvation? Possibility of change? Of getting through and growing up free? Not when those who should help you are there to tell you:       

"It is my opinion, Miss Hendricks, that you are going to reoffend."

Inasmuch as there could be people observing Anais at all times, there is also a measure of internal monitoring that happens here—because how many times do you have to hear that you are no good before you thoroughly absorb that and internalize it?

It is more warped tae rape a dog or tae think of murder? Thinking of murder isnae the same as murder - it's not even like I think about murder a lot. I just think whatever the fuck it is I shouldnae think.

Like, on a train station, the train rushes in and I always think - Jump! Just fucking jump. Or some wee radge will be standing there, or even some nice wee old lady, and I'll just picture my arm slamming out. Then - them dead on the train track. I dinnae wantae, I dinna wantae think stuff like that. Probably there is something fundamentally wrong with me. Thoughts are not actions, though, thoughts dinnae mean anything - unless they do. Then you're fucked.

I can never work it out. Why do I think thoughts like that, unless I'm bad? Probably there's something in me that's gonnae come out one day and everyone will see it. I mean, even though I unmay a Brian, really - right where no one can see - I'm rotten. There's something wrong with me.

It's why nobody kept me.

So in a way, even though it is a horrible thought in itself, it is also easy to understand Anais’ belief that she is an experiment since that way her life has a least some sort of meaning. And a “meaning system” is at the core of this character arc: to try and understand why her life is so bad and why bad things happen to her. And they do happen, relentlessly so: I couldn’t stop thinking what else could possibly happen to Anais and her friends only to be met with rock bottom over and over again. And they were bad and dark. 

So: my heart. What truly broke me were the small moments of clarity and of beauty in this story: of friendships formed in adversity; of a wedding in the middle of a tiny island; of a feather headdress; the memories of a girl’s kiss and of an adoptive mother’s care; when Anais makes up wonderful stories about her past.    

After all this, the ending feels too neat and unrealistic; taken at face value, it somewhat diminishes everything that came before. It’s ironic to say this, since it is the ending I so hoped for Anais, so I guess I will take it.

The Panopticon is Trainspotting, Skins and Justine Larbalestier’s Liar all rolled into one with a narrative voice that is truly its own—and the heart and soul of the novel. 

In Book Smugglerish, a gutwrenched 8 out of 10.

Thea James and Ana Grilo are The Book Smugglers, a website for speculative fiction and YA. You can also find them on Twitter.