Book Review: 'The Panopticon'

Alan Cheuse reviews Scottish novelist Jenni Fagan's new book, The Panopticon.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Jenni Fagan is a Scottish writer who published her first book in the U.K. last year. It's called "The Panopticon," and it's out now here in the U.S. Our reviewer Alan Cheuse says it's a terrific portrait of a young criminal.

ALAN CHEUSE, BYLINE: Fifteen-year-old Anais Hendricks is a child of the Scottish foster care system, with more than 50 placements over the course of her young life and, in just the past 16 months, over 100 criminal charges against her: drug possession, car theft, destruction of property, battery, threatening an officer, inciting to riot.

We meet Anais as the police deliver her to an experimental prison, the Panopticon of the title, where guards watch inmates 24 hours a day, allowing no privacy except for the toilet. In her relentless novel, Jenni Fagan allows Anais to tell her own story, but she allows no privacy, either, toilet included, inviting us in to witness the worst of the girl's angry adolescence with drugs and police bashing and porno, among other disasters.

As if coming down from a frenzied drug tear, Anais counts things to regain her sanity: seats on a bus; the number of bars on a prison gate; the squares on the roof of a classroom. And she names things: Gate, Path, Door, Bin, Dog, Old Man, Lamppost, Three Trees, Boy on a Skateboard, Cyclist. Novelist Fagan does the same, giving us all of the things in Anais' view, from the ugliest to the most beautiful, though of the latter there are few, and in the particularly foul voice of an orphaned young offender at the mercy of the state.

At the mercy of the state, yes, until Anais finds the strength to take charge of herself. Reading along, we see her struggling to lose herself and save herself in the past, as in the present, seeing her from every angle in every hour, just as in the prison. It's not a pretty view but Fagan makes this ugly life somehow beautiful.

BLOCK: The book is "The Panopticon" by Jenni Fagan. It was reviewed for us by Alan Cheuse, who teaches writing at George Mason University.

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