Thursday, September 27, 2018

Book 148: The Panopticon

"It's the same in the nick or the nuthouse: notoriety is respect. Like, if you were in a unit with a total psycho and they said you were sound? Then you'd be a wee bit safer in the next place. If it's a total nut that's vouched for you, the less hassle you'll get. I dinnae need tae worry about any of that. I am the total nut. We're just in training for the proper jail. Nobody talks about it, but it's a statistical fact. That or on the game. Most of us are anyway—but not everybody, some go to the nuthouse. Some just disappear."

Dates read: May 26-29, 2017

Rating: 7/10

In identical twin studies, the incidence of schizophrenia, if one twin has it, is 50% for the other twin. Obviously, the rate of schizophrenia in the general population is much, much lower (only about 1%), so clearly there's a strong genetic link. But at only 50%, there's clearly something else going on as well: ye olde Nature v. Nurture. There are probably thousands of people walking around who have risk factors for this or any number of other mental or physical disorders, but because they've been placed in the right environment, will never develop them. And the inverse is also true...there are probably thousands of people for whom a genetic predisposition might as well have been fate, because their environments are going to make it all but impossible for the disease to NOT take its toll.

If anyone should be damaged, it's Anais Hendricks, the teenage heroine of Jenni Fagan's The Panopticon. Born in a mental hospital to a woman who disappeared soon afterward, she's shuffled through dozens of placements by the time we meet her as a 15 year-old getting shoved into the back of a police car with blood all over her, not able to remember what just happened. What she does know is that a policewoman is in a coma and that she's being blamed for it, and that she's headed toward a group home for wayward youth called the Panopticon. As Anais settles in and gets to know the staff and residents, we learn more and more about her background, about the places that she's lived and the ways (sex and drugs, mostly) that she's tried to escape and find a little happiness for herself. Even as she gets more comfortable, though, there's a constant axe hanging over her head, since she knows if the injured policewoman takes a turn for the worse she'll be sent to a secure facility to be under constant lock and key.

The book takes place in Scotland, and Fagan peppers the dialogue with dialect. It's a little hard to wrap your head around at first if that's not something you're used to, but it's pretty easy to tell what the words mean by context clues and after a while it becomes part of the rhythm of the novel. The plot itself is slightly off-kilter in a way that fits the story being told...there's a pretty clear "peak" near the middle of the plot after which things begin to fall apart, but there's not really a climax per se. And the people it shines a light on, teens that have lived through the kind of horrifying conditions that leave them in a group home, don't really have lives that follow the linear path we might expect either. There's a lot of very dark stuff here: drug abuse, rape, disease, cutting, parental abandonment, death, but it somehow comes together to end on a surprisingly hopeful note.

What really shines in The Panopticon is the characterization, especially of Anais. At first she's an off-putting character, a violent and drug-addled teenager who seems practically feral and certainly dangerous. But as her layers get peeled back, you come to see how her life has necessitated the hard shell she wears around herself and why she acts the way she does. Slowly, you begin to care about her and root for her and by the time there's a court proceeding where she's dismissed as a hopeless case who can never be trusted to live outside of custody you're offended by how smugly they assume they've seen all they need to know about her. Many of the other kids and some of the staff in the Panopticon are given strong personalities despite relatively little "page time", so to speak, but Anais is a bold and surprisingly winning heroine. As long as you can deal with the rough places the book goes, I'd definitely recommend it. Please don't do what I did originally, though, and assume it's YA. It is very much a book for a more mature audience.

Tell me, blog friends...what do you think about reading novels with large portions of dialect?

One year ago, I was reading: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Two years ago, I was reading: The Circle

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