Having neglected Scottish literature for a number of months, despite my best intentions at the start of the year, I was reminded of my earlier aims by Stuart Kelly’s list of the 50 best Scottish books of the last 50 years – now the subject of a public vote. The books within the list seem admirably spread out over the previous five decades – around the same number from the last ten years, for example, as from the 1980s. However, it did strike me that this included recent novels from established writers such as James Kelman and A. L. Kennedy whereas in the 1980s we find early (or first) novels from Alasdair Gray, Iain Banks and Janice Galloway. Of the newer novels, there was one which I had heard widely praised – Jenni Fagan’s debut The Panopticon, published in 2011 – and if I didn’t actually have a copy already! I prevaricated no longer and read it.
Luckily, The Panopticon proved to be as assured as its press suggested. It tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl, Anais Hendricks, who has spent her life in the care system. Her only successful adoption ended with the murder of her foster mother. We find her joining yet another institution, the Panopticon, with the suspicion hanging over her that she has attacked a policewoman and put her in a coma. The novel charts her time at the new home, the friendships she creates, and the lives of the other children there.
Fagan tells the story in Anais’ voice – a necessity, really, if the narrative is not to be suffused with a value system that she is not part of. This is not an easy trick as Anais’ intelligence means we have elements of dialect (“tae”) and slang (“paedo”) alongside lines such as:
“The smell of wet grass filters in the window – bark swollen by rain, mulch, autumn, a faint wisp of woodfire.”
Initially I found this a little jarring, but such is the strength of Anais’ character I soon accepted her voice.
Anais is wonderful creation: strong but vulnerable doesn’t do her justice sounding as it sounds like the cliché of a lazy blurb writer, yet Fagan demonstrates both aspects of her character with an unflinching honesty. Just as Anais makes no attempt to encourage others to like her, the author makes no compromises in her portrayal. Her strength is not only physical – though we see at one point a rage descend on her in which she loses all control – but mental (I want to say spiritual, though the religious connotations of that word would mislead), a determination to be unbeaten. Fagan demonstrates her vulnerability in the very way she enables herself to go on, something she calls the birthday game, where she imagines alternative lives for herself:
“Imagine Paris. Imagine being born a beautiful, lucky wee girl with a beautiful mum, who I’d met, who I lived with; one who made pancakes, and drank gin, and listened tae jazz.”
She also imagines she is being watched by the Experiment – a nod, no doubt, to the fact that all these methods of dealing with children in care are little more than experiments and that Anais’ paranoid fantasy is actually quite close to the truth.
At the novel’s conclusion, I was reminded of Douglas Dunn’s poem A Removal from Terry Street where he sees that the movers are pushing a lawn mower and wishes them grass. I couldn’t help but wish Anais Paris.