The Panopticon – Jenni Fagan’s Answer to ‘Safe Spaces’

In an increasing climate of political ‘safe spaces’, Jenni Fagan breaks down the barriers between idealist perspectives and the cold reality faced by the socially excluded.

Set against the backdrop of natural, countryside Scotland, in harsh contrast with the prison-like Midlothian Social Care institutions, Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon (2013) takes the reader on what becomes a morally debasing voyage. Through the eyes of a feral, yet loveable Anais, Fagan eloquently explores the realities of being brought up “in the system”, employing an identifiably East-Scottish dialect. Whilst there is a fantastical element incorporated by Fagan, the novel puts a spotlight on the offensive, highlighting a number of real issues with the Scottish Social Services – primarily from the viewpoint of child service users who believe they are destined to fail.
Anais is a 15 year old girl who has been subjected to grief, violence and exploitation among other evils in her short life. She is branded a criminal by the adults who surround her, social workers, local families and police officers, who seem to forget that she is still a child. The tale begins as our protagonist is taken to a secure unit called The Panopticon (named so due to is circular shape in which residents are monitored at all times) because she stands accused of attempted murder. The officers who escort her there are entirely unsympathetic and this stands as a major issue throughout the novel – the adults in Anais’ life constantly seek to bring her down and those who try to help her are powerless against juvenile law enforcement. As a society we understand that the actions of Anais are punishable by law – and rightly so – yet she stands out as a captivating hero whom the reader roots for throughout the story, forced to undermine their own values as they do.
One thematic thread that is particularly poignant is power, Anais’ lack of it at the hands of “The Experiment”,
“You can feel them, ay. In the quiet. In the room. Wherever you are – they’re there. That’s a given. Sometimes they’re right there, sometimes a wee bit further away; when I want to hurt myself but I dinnae, I can always feel them then. They want me to hurt myself. They’re sick like that. What they really want is me dead.”
Whilst “The Experiment” is an imaginary construct employed by Anais to explain the unforgiving nature of her life so far, there is a clear reflection on the reality of the lives of victims of social exclusion whose lives are out of their immediate control. There are expectations, such as the expectations of “The Experiment” on Anais, that society and its institutions place upon the so-called ‘underclass’ which are effectively challenged by Fagan in a particularly emotive manner. The Panopticon building itself is a representation of institutional power over the convicted by design – in this instance, the convicted being a group of young offenders.
Drug and alcohol abuse is a major feature employed by Fagan as we see Anais ‘getting high’ constantly throughout the novel. Again, society might often be offended by such behaviour yet the reader sympathises with our narrator who clearly uses drugs as a means to escape the harsh realities of her life. She is in the grip of adolescence, transitioning between childhood and adulthood and between fantasy and reality as we see through her vivid imaginary constructs of “The Experiment” and “the birthday game”.
In a variety of ways, this book echoes the work of Irvine Welsh. Of particular relevance is Trainspotting due not only to its use of dialect, dealings with drugs and escapism but also the, at times, humorous qualities of Anais’ perspective on her tragic situation. Welsh himself commended the novel as “breathtakingly poetic” as Fagan challenges the literary institution in an “uncompromising nature”. These novels uplift the culturally ‘scummy’ Scottish characters who are otherwise looked upon with disdain by society in a way that brings barriers crumbling down, forcing the reader to see the human realities existing behind the wall of ignorance that has been built between upstanding middle class folk and the ‘underclass’.
The Panopticon is a fantastic and thought-provoking read; appealing to those who enjoy gritty, norm-shattering fiction or those of us suffering from post-Trainspotting withdrawal symptoms, whilst offensive to those who enjoy their ‘safe spaces’ impenetrable by those of alternative persuasions. Fagan’s use of characterisation, dialect and humour engage the reader in a way that forces a cold hard look at the realities existing on our very doorstep.


Fagan, J. (2013) The Panopticon. London: Windmill Books


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