In 'The Panopticon,' They're Always Watching Jenni Fagan's debut novel, The Panopticon, is a creepy and troubled portrait of a girl lost in the system. The plot is loosely based on Fagan's experience growing up in foster care.
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In 'The Panopticon,' They're Always Watching

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In 'The Panopticon,' They're Always Watching

In 'The Panopticon,' They're Always Watching

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This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Her name is Anais. But that's not her real name. We don't know it and neither does she. She says she's a girl with a shark's heart, but it's the waters around Anais that really seem shark-infested. She's been remanded to the panopticon, a prison of a reform school in Scotland, which somehow, through her mind, has a bit of magic in it.

And "The Panopticon" is also the title of Jenni Fagan's debut novel. She joins us now from the BBC in Edinburgh, Scotland. Jenni Fagan, welcome to the program.

JENNI FAGAN: Thank you, Jacki. Thank you for having me.

LYDEN: It's a wonderful book. Let's begin with our heroine - a young girl, she's just 15. Introduce us a little bit to this girl, Anais. Who's she named for?

FAGAN: It was a combination of things, actually. The origins of the name are quite interesting in itself. The book is a fictional novel, but it's partly inspired by my own upbringing. And I had several different names, once of which was Ann. So at the beginning of the book, Anais is called Anais, and that's the name that she's been given by an adoptive parent. And she takes her own name at the end of the book. And it was a very loose nod to me that never happened, in a way.

LYDEN: She's just 15 years old, as we said, has this really troubled history. She's passed from foster situation to foster situation, this very troubled foster mother who's murdered, she's a prostitute. But what is going on with our protagonist when we meet her? What's going on with her?

FAGAN: When we meet Anais, she is in the back of a police car. She is wearing her school uniform. She has blood on her skirt, and she's handcuffed. And she's being taken to the panopticon, which is a children's home that's meant to be practicing a kind of holistic approach to client care. They call children in care clients. And it's based on an old panopticon building.

So a panopticon itself is a building that's in the shape of a C. And in the middle of the C shape, there is one watchtower. And from that watchtower, you can see into every cell or every room. So these were originally used as experimental mental health facilities or experimental prison systems. And a lot of the time in the U.K., certainly when I was in care, they would make children's homes in old buildings that weren't being used. So the idea of the panopticon is that this care home has been put in an old panopticon.

LYDEN: Let's walk into the mystery which is at the heart of the book, the atmosphere of the panopticon. Would you read to us from the beginning of chapter eight, for example?

FAGAN: (Reading) The watchtower is even more sinister when it's dark. The staff aren't around, so I put the big light out, and I've angled my chair so I'm facing away from the watchtower. I can feel it behind me. I keep imagining men in suits sitting behind that glass watching, and they're all wearing shiny shoes and none of them have noses.

LYDEN: She doesn't have an identity. I mean, we talk about the difficulty of trying to have autonomy from this watched universal system. But also, even if she were out on the street, she doesn't really know who she is. Did you feel that way as a child?

FAGAN: Absolutely. You know, there's certain elements of this book that do resonate with my upbringing quite strongly, and I was able to authenticate the book because of that. I don't think I would have been able to write it in the same way if I hadn't grown up in the care system for 16 years. But I'm 35 now, and I've moved about 32 times, and a lot of that was through the age of 16. And it was very, very, very dislocating. And I know that there are kids that still find that they kind of just get lost in the system, in the bureaucracy and all those things.

LYDEN: She sometimes thinks she's an experiment created in a test tube, but she also imagines her birth quite often. It's a game she plays. Why don't you read to us about that, because you've given her this really poetic voice.

FAGAN: (Reading) I begin, like always, with a birth. I pick a birth like I believe I was born once. I do it carefully, like it counts - born in the bushes by a mortuary, born in a VW with its doors open to the sea, born in Harvey Nichols between the fur coats and the perfume, aghast store staff faint. The story is printed in reputable Sunday broadsheet: Rich, beautiful but tragically barren couple read this in their bed in their palazzo in Italy; adopt baby immediately.

Harvey Nichols offer little baby Harvey Nicole a modeling contract for their Italian baby range. They promise the girl will have free perfume for life. Nice. Born in an igloo. Born in a castle. Born in a teepee while the moon rises and a midsummer powwow pounds the ground outside. Born in an asylum to the psychotically insane. Born on an adoption certificate on a perfectly mundane Tuesday. Born in Paris - gay Paris - birthplace of one beautiful baby girl, Anais. That's the one.

For three years now, it's been a clear winner. I'm almost beginning to believe it. They'll interview me in Hollywood one day, and I'll have to tell them all about it. Where were you born, Anais? Oh, you know, Paris one early winter's morning.

LYDEN: You have phrases here I would kill for. She walks out the door and says the woods looked particularly elfish this morning. I mean, you've just - she's just got such a wonderful voice. You know, I've read reviews of this book, Jenni Fagan, that say about her, as you have her say about herself, this is a girl with a shark's heart. But I thought she had a lot of tenderness not only for the other children but for some of the adults in her life. And I thought that she also had this lost child quality from Peter Pan to Jane Eyre and that she was tender.

FAGAN: I mean, she really is. And to be honest, that's the thing that's going to save Anais. If there's anything that has the potential to allow her to grow into an adult is that she is a young offender. And there is times in the book where she's violent, but it upsets her a lot. She has her own moral code. She doesn't believe in bullying people. She would never tolerate somebody hurting an old person or somebody, a child or an animal. She tends to get in fights when she's defending somebody that she cares about.

So she's a contradiction of things. And that's what I was interested in developing in a character, you know, somebody who doesn't just fit neatly into boxes, somebody who's uncomfortable to be around sometimes but that you're very compelled by. And I'm always fascinated by writers who manage to do that with protagonists, and I think it's very interesting.

LYDEN: Jenni Fagan, it has been a great pleasure speaking with you. Jenni Fagan's new book is called "The Panopticon." We wish you good luck, Jenni.

FAGAN: Thank you, Jacki. Lovely to meet you.

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