The Panopticon

by Jenni Fagan

The Panopticon

Hardcover, 282 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $22 | purchase

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Book Summary

At a home for chronic offenders, 15-year-old foster child Anais becomes part of an ad hoc family. Together, they struggle against the adults that keep them confined.

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Excerpt: The Panopticon

I'm an experiment. I always have been. It's a given, a liberty, a fact. They watch me. not just in school or social-work reviews, court or police cells — they watch everywhere. They watch me hang by my knees from the longest bough of the oak tree; I can do that for hours, just letting the wishes drift by. They watch me as I outstare the moon. I am not intimidated by its terrible baldness. They're there when I fight, and fuck, and wank. When I carve my name on trees, and avoid stepping on the cracks. They're there when I stare too long or too clearly, without flinching. They watch me sing, and joyride, and start riots with only the smallest of sparks; they even watch me in the bath. I keep my eyes open underwater, just my nose and mouth poking out so I can blow smoke rings — my record is seventeen in a row. They watch me not cry. They watch me lie like an angel, hiding my dirty feet. They watch me, I know it, and I can't find anywhere, anymore, where they can't see.

It's an unmarked car. Tinted windows, vanilla air freshener. The cuffs are sore on my wrists but not tight enough tae mark them — they're too smart for that. The policeman stares at me in the rearview mirror. This village is just speed bumps, and a river, and cottages with window blinds sagging like droopy eyelids. The fields are strange. Too long. Too wide. The sky is huge. I should be playing the birthday game, but I cannae, not while there's witnesses around. The birthday game has to be played in secret — or the experiment will find out. What I need to do right now is memorize the number stickered inside the back window. It's 75999.43. I close my eyes and say it in my head over and over. Open my eyes and get it right first time.

The car drives over a wee ancient stone bridge and I want to jump off it, into the river — the water is all brown whorls, but I'd still feel cleaner after. I slept in the forest for ten days once, it was nice; nae people, mostly. The odd pedo on the warpath like, so I had tae watch, but when it was safe, I bathed in the rapids. I washed my knickers and T-shirt in the current every morning, then dried them on rocks while I sunbathed. I could live like that. Nae stress. Nae windows or doors. It must have been an Indian summer that year because it was still warm, even in September. I was twelve, and fucked, but not as fucked as now.

The policewoman lays her hand on my arm. She's dealt with me before. She cannae see my nails are gouged into my fist. I didnae even notice until I uncurled my fingers and saw red half-moons on my palm. I hate. Her face. The thick hair on his neck. I hate the way the policeman turns the wheel. What is worse, though, is this nowhere place. There's nae escape. The cuffs chink as I smooth down my school skirt — it's heavily spattered with bloodstains. We drive by a huge stone wall, up to a gateway framed by two tall pillars. On the first there's a gargoyle — someone's stubbed a fag out in his ear. I glance up at the other pillar, and a winged cat crouches down.

My heart starts going, and it isnae what's waiting at the end of the drive down there, or three nights with no sleep in the cells. It's not the policeman smirking at me in his mirror. It's a winged cat — with one red eye and a terrible smile.

Turn around and gaze back. That's what the monk sent me, drawn on a bit of cardboard he'd ripped off a cereal box. One winged cat, in pencil — no note. He sent it from the nuthouse. Helen's gonnae make me go and meet him, as soon as she gets back.

Look at it. A real stone winged cat! It's stunning. His wings would be a couple of meters wide if he unfolded them, and there's yellow lichen furring his shoulders. I'll draw him, later, alongside my two-headed flying kitten, and a troop of snails on acid — wearing top hats, with spirally eyes and jaggy fucking teeth. A sign for the Panopticon is nestled in trees with conkers hanging off them. A leafy arc dapples light onto the road; it flickers across my face, and in the car window my eyes flash amber, then dull. The Panopticon looms in a big crescent at the end of a long driveway. It's four floors high, two turrets on either side and a peak in the middle — that'll be where the watchtower is.

"They'll not be scared of you in there," the policewoman says. She undoes the chain from her belt to my cuffs. I scratch under my ponytail, then my leg, I've one of those wandering itches that won't settle. There is birdsong. The smell of wet grass filters in the window — bark swollen by rain, mulch, autumn, a faint wisp of wood fire. The car pulls away from the leafy canopy into a sudden glare of sun- light and the policeman snaps his sun visor down, but he doesnae need tae, clouds are already racing down from behind the hills. A light drizzle glitters in the sun. There'll be a rainbow after this.

Files marked a. Hendricks: Section 14 (372.1) are stacked on the front seat. My knees are itchy now. Funny things, knees, knobbly hunks of bone. The car stops outside a sign for the main entrance beside six shan cars and a minibus with Midlothian Social Work department emblazoned on the side. I fucking hate traveling in those things. Windows are open on the third floor but only about six inches — they'll have safety locks on, so they dinnae get jumpers. Three girls hang out, although only their heads and arms fit through. They're all smoking, and giggling to each other.

Copyright 2012 by Jenni Fagan. From THE PANOPTICON published by Hogarth, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.

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