5 Minute Memoir By Jenni Fagan, The Independent

The bus smells damp, it’s snowing outside and I am going to be late for tutorials if this traffic doesn’t start moving. Trafalgar Square appears and Nelson is scanning the horizon. I used to do that in crowds, unconsciously hoping to find a similar feature to mine. I’ve never met anyone I am related to, well, my father a few times in my twenties, but other than that – nothing.

Now I have two heartbeats inside me, where before there was just one. There is still a faint residue of gel on my tummy, where the nurse coated it earlier. On the screen – your hands covered your ears, you were dreaming, floating in space, unaware of us peering in at you. Your heartbeat sounded so strong, the sound filled the room and the nurse turned to me and said – it’s a boy.

I cried.

You are no longer an abstract it, you are my son. We walked to Tate Modern and I played you Tim Buckley on my headphones. In the Turbine Hall there was a huge cargo container lined with black velvet. Stepping inside – it grew darker, until everything was black. That’s how I imagine dying might be – like walking into darkness. I’ll tell you about death another day. It’s nothing to fear. Hopefully I will pass on a long time before you do and I promise if there is a cargo container on the other side of life, I will be there, waiting for you when you arrive. You will be old and wizened then, a little old man – who once was a boy.

We took a few porcelain sunflower seeds from another exhibit, each one was handmade and is totally unique. I keep touching them in my pocket and wondering what I can tell you about life?

The truth of it is this – we live in a world without explanation, in a galaxy and universe surrounded by galaxies and universes and nobody asks questions too loudly because the answers are sketchy at best. I can’t explain to you why we arrive as seeds and leave as dust, but I can show you the truth in rainbows. I can bake you pancakes, and take you to the park in autumn so we can kick up the leaves.

The bus turns onto Shaftesbury Avenue, the pavements are crowded and I wonder if we’ll raise you here. I want you to spend your childhood by the sea, somewhere with huge skies and open spaces.

I know you already, we are intrinsically linked in a way that I have never felt with a stranger. I was always walking into some new foster home to live in, or a kids’ home, or an adoption – the perpetual new kid. Over the years I began to observe families, how they functioned. I studied them because they never worked out for me.

This is different, we are a part of each other, and I will do everything I possibly can to give you a happy, secure life. I feel like I’m growing up, placing my two flighty feet, firmly on the ground. The bus turns onto Oxford Street, and I ring the bell to get off and realise I won’t be late for class after all.

Here we are. Two heartbeats. You and me. I pull my hat down, tie my scarf and hold the handrail as we go down the steps. I’m wearing wellies, and jeans, and my jacket is zipped up to my chin. I’d never wear wellies before but you make me want to keep my feet dry.

We step onto the pavement and an old man swerves by us, singing loudly in Italian. His coat is covered in shiny badges. He gestures at passers-by as if he is ushering them off a plane, and they try to avoid him.

This is life – in all its smelly glory! I hope you can forgive me for bringing you into it, especially if you think too much like I do. It’s OK really, the ache of being alive, the beat of your own heart, the silence of unanswerable questions. There are shooting stars, and music, and there is magic if you learn how to look – and it is still our world, no matter how many other people might try to convince you, it’s mostly theirs.

It is yours and it is mine.

And all these other people walking by us in the snow, it’s their world too.

I touch my tummy through my coat and I know you are awake again. The sunflower seeds in my pocket feel cool, and smooth to touch. We will wait for a few years, then we will go and plant them – somewhere on a cliff-top, where there is a view of the sea. We’ll let them nestle in the cool soil and water them on weekends. After all, who says – that porcelain seeds can’t grow?

Jenni Fagan’s novel, ‘The Panopticon’, has just been published in hardback by William Heinemann. It has been picked as one of Waterstone’s 11 debut novels of the year

The Scotsman Reviews The Panopticon

Book review: The Panopticon

Published on Saturday 12 May 2012 00:00


Stuart Kelly hails a novel that gets inside the soul of its troubled heroine


Jeremy Bentham might well be surprised if he learned how influential his ideal prison – the Panopticon – would be in terms of aesthetics. The circular prison, where the prisoners can be seen all the time (or rather, where they know that they might be seen at any time, and therefore internalise the surveillance to the extent that the prison controllers don’t need an actual person continually watching) plays a significant role in Angela Carter’s Nights At The Circus, and is central to both Charles Stross’s Glasshouse and Hannu Rajamieni’s The Quantum Thief. It was discussed at length in Michel Foucault’s Discipline And Punish, his ground-breaking work on the transition from public, retributory execution to private, supposedly rehabilitating incarceration, where, as Foucault elegantly and paradoxically puts it, the soul becomes a prison for the body.

It is the title of Jenni Fagan’s novel, already selected as one of the “Waterstones 11” promotion of the best debut works of the year. It is the most assured and intriguing first novel by a Scottish writer that I have read in a decade, a book which is lithely and poetically written, politically and morally brave and simply unforgettable. To give some indication of the maturity of this novel, I should confess that initially I had one or two queries about certain decisions about style and plotting; which, on reflection, I increasingly saw as strengths – and very meaningful strengths – rather than weaknesses.

The Panopticon is narrated by a girl who calls herself Anais Hendricks. Abandoned at birth, she has been through 51 residential and fostering placements, and a brief period of adoption ended in tragedy. Aged 15, already boasting 147 charges of theft, possession, vandalism and breaches of the peace, she has been sent to the Panopticon after a WPC with whom she was pursuing a vendetta was battered into a coma. There was blood on Anais’s school uniform but she cannot remember the crime.

Anais’s voice is an intricate blend of the demotic and the hauntingly lyrical. This is the sound of children who have read Trainspotting: radge and chore and womble and umnay. Fagan makes Anais a baroque curser, who could out-swear Sick Boy, and the real sense comes across that such inventive profanity is the only power available to the powerless. It is not the paucity of vocabulary but an anguished frustration at wanting swearing to hurt again. This is offset by psychologically acute moments of transport. Anais plays her “birthday game”, inventing a glamorous childhood she never had. She develops her own arcane mythology of “the experiment”. Not having a mother means she was never really born at all, but cultured in a petri-dish. Men with broad-brimmed hats and no noses are using her to discover just how much a nobody can take before they break. There are moments which are genuinely distressing to read, which return the reader to a painful sense of how mindlessly and unspeakable cruel people can be. But it is marbled with cynical, smart comedy: Anais, for example, when she is told to participate in group events as a way of coping with her trauma, thinks “Okay then. I’ll bowl myself better. I’ll ice-skate tae f***ing happiness every Friday f***ing night”.

Fagan is exceptionally skilful with bathos, a notoriously difficult literary register; here, however, it manages to be funny and heart-breakingly tender at the same time. When Anais tries to recollects scraps she has heard about her birth mother, she thinks “if they fried my mother’s voices out, did she still know who she was afterwards? They found her naked outside a supermarket supposedly. In labour. Psychotic. They never did say which supermarket”. This both defuses and humanises, and frequently it grounds Anais’s fantasies in the all too human. Likewise there is an astonishing cadenza of all the questions which social workers don’t ask. “They dinnae ask about the terrible baldness of the moon, they dinnae ask about rooms without windows or doors … they didnae ask me about blood in an empty bath, and they didnae ask about what Theresa was gonnae do when she got out that bath – she was gonnae curl up with me and watch a movie. We were gonnae make microwave popcorn.” Bathos renders that innocuous, almost inconsequential, detail into a vivid means to express phenomenal loss.

I had some reservations that certain plot lines drop from prominence as the narrative hurtles towards its catastrophe. It seems, however, as if there is a deliberate strategy to avoid certain forms of narrative closure. It is in keeping with what the authorities might describe as Anais’s “chaotic” circumstances. People disappear. Things are permanently unresolved, or unresolvable. In contrast with the crime novel, where despite its claims to verisimilitude, there is always resolution, Fagan’s novel is both more naturalistic and pleasingly oblique. Life, as Stevenson said, is “infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant”. To render this novelistically is a rare achievement. There were moments when I felt a didacticism crept into the dialogue; and felt suitably chastened when I realised that critics never really complain when the middle-class characters in an Iris Murdoch novel pontificate about philosophy. Characters have a right to opinions even if they don’t have mortgages.

The Panopticon appeals to writers since in some ways the novelist is the prison’s arch-overseer, able to look into the minds of the characters. But that comes with a duty: to keep your eyes open even when you’d rather shut them. Fagan is gloriously open-eyed about immaturity, maturity, sexuality, crime, dispossession and more. Her ability to capture the cross-currents of language, the impersonations of consciousness, is admirable: “I am not that important”, Anais thinks, “and that is just fine by me. I propose a stiff upper lip and onward Christain soldiers, quick-bloody-march. This is Anais Hendricks, telling the nation: to be me is really quite spiff-f***ing-spoff, lashings of love, your devoted BBC broadcaster since 1938”. (I also adore the tmesis, that self-interruption of words).

As a debut, The Panopticon does everything it should. It announces a major new star in the firmament.


The Panopticon

By Jenni Fagan

William Heinemann, 324pp, £12.99


Waterstones 11

The Panopticon

The Panopticon

by Jenni Fagan

Format: Hardback 256 pages

101 days until publication

Debut novels



Pa`nop´ti`con ( noun). A prison so constructed that the inspector can see each of the prisoners at all times, without being seen.

Anais Hendricks, 15, is in the back of a police car, headed for The Panopticon, a home for chronic young offenders. She can’t remember the events that led her here, but across town a policewoman lies in a coma and there is blood on Anais’ school uniform.

Smart, funny and fierce, Anais is a counter-culture outlaw, a bohemian philosopher in sailor shorts and a pillbox hat. She is also a child who has been let down, or worse, by just about every adult she has ever met.

The residents of the Panopticon form intense bonds, heightened by their place on the periphery, and Anais finds herself part of an ad-hoc family there. Much more suspicious are the social workers, especially Helen, who is about to leave her job for an elephant sanctuary in India but is determined to force Anais to confront the circumstances of her birth before she goes.

Looking up at the watchtower that looms over the residents, Anais knows her fate: she is part of an experiment, she always was, it’s a given, a liberty – a fact. And the experiment is closing in.

In language dazzling, energetic and pure, The Panopticon introduces us to a heartbreaking young heroine and an incredibly assured and outstanding new voice in fiction.


Book details


William Heinemann Ltd