The dehumanising effects of institutionalisation are evident in the lives of all the characters in this book

The Panopticon

Jenni Fagan is a novelist and poet based in Edinburgh. She won numerous awards for her fiction. The Panopticon is her first novel.

In The Panopticon, we are introduced to Anais, a singular young woman who does not seem to trust anyone, grew up with foster parents and ended up in a care home that looks just like a prison. How was it like to shape such a fearless, straightforward and bold narrator?

It was exciting, challenging, all absorbing. I found her fascinating as a character, I didn’t want to write her as one dimensional and I think it is the contradictions that make her so compelling.

Anais does not know her origins, or even how she was conceived, but she does not really care about this at the beginning of the novel. How meaningful was it for you to have her change her mind throughout the novel?

I think it was really important to see that Anais is not a fixed being. She has always had an interest in what her origins were and each year she would speculate about this throughout the birthday game. Obviously she is nearing the end of her childhood in care so these questions become more urgent. Perhaps she is more able to accept the uncomfortable nature of a life without answers.

The care home is a Panopticon, the acme of disciplinary and maximum-security architecture, the great haunting and smothering presence of the novel. Before beginning to write, what came first: the leading voice of Anais or this impressive building?

Anais came first but The Panopticon itself was borne out of the fact that she is constantly observed in the care system. The system itself is a panopticon. The dehumanising effects of institutionalisation are evident in the lives of all the characters in this book, both staff and residents.

You used to work with young offenders. Was this the main inspiration for your novel? Does this kind of experience bring a different perspective to your writing?

I have worked with young offenders and I have experience of these systems personally. I was brought up in local authority care so I understand what it means to exist in a periphery that is often pre-judged as some kind of homogeneous subaltern. The process of being observed by adults and written about and passed on from place to place — it has its own sinister element to it.

Editorial reviews (6 reviews)

Fagan's writing is taut and controlled and the dialogue crackles.

A novel that leaves me ignoring everything I’m meant to be doing, in favour of compulsively reading on, is a rare treat; The Panopticon is one of those novels.

Fagan is writing about important stuff: the losers, the lonely, most of them women. And she's good on Sumo Baby Championships on TV, and masturbation ("you cannae trust folk that dinnae wank"): life, in other words.