The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan

The PanopticonTitle: The Panopticon
Author: Jenni Fagan
Published: 23 July 2013
Publisher: Hogarth
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: contemporary, YA
Rating: 8/10

The Panopticon is the kind of novel that can start one of those debates about the boundaries of YA. It would certainly have the YA moralists up in arms. It’s not often that I read a book – any book – where a 15-year-old girl mentions fighting, fucking, and wanking on the first page.

But, nevertheless, Anais is only 15. She frequently narrates experiences from the past few years, too. There are also several other major characters around her age. And the experiences they have are strongly influenced by the fact that they are teenagers. Based on this you would assume that it’s a YA novel.

What complicates matters is that all of them have lived the kinds lives that more privileged teenagers would be sheltered from, and perhaps not even allowed to read about. Anais was born in a mental institution, and has been in 58 different placements since then. She was once adopted by a prostitute, but the woman was murdered. Eleven-year-old Anais found the body.

Following countless run-ins with the cops, she’s been accused of putting a policewoman in a coma. While she awaits trial she’s been placed at the Panopticon, an institution built according to Foucault’s famous design – a circular prison built around a central observation tower that allows inmates to be observed at all times. The twist is that inmates can’t see when they’re being observed, which means they have to assume that they’re always being observed.

The tower at this Panopticon is empty, but the institution operates on the rule that the ‘clients’ aren’t allowed to close their bedroom doors during the day, “to create a more trusting environment”. This fits rather neatly with Anais’s belief that she is the subject of “the experiment” – an ongoing study in which she is constantly observed and cannot escape. The goal of the experiment is to break Anais, which will happen if that cop doesn’t wake up. There is little Anais can say in her defence because she had a antagonistic relationship with the policewoman, she was caught wearing a shirt covered in blood, and she was so high on drugs that she can’t remember what happened that day. She’s currently in the kind of care where she gets an allowance and is allowed to go out and do her own thing, but if she’s found guilty, she’ll be transferred to a secure unit and locked up 24/7. Anais would rather be dead than locked up for good.

It already sounds like a hard story to face, but those are just the bones of the plot; I haven’t even gotten into all the details that hit you in the gut. Like the fact that Anais has been doing hard drugs for years, and now complains that she’s “getting old” because she didn’t get come-downs and hangovers before she was a teenager. She’s been charged with dealing drugs and fighting, among a hundred other offences. Sexually she’s extremely active, but not always with her consent. At 15 she’s already had sex with boys, girls and older men, and taken part in a threesome. Sex can be loving and fun for her, but it’s also a form of escapism, and on several occasions it was rape. She has an older boyfriend, of sorts, who is currently in jail. She plays this game where she imagines knowing who her mother is. She’s been failed by everyone – her parents, the social care system, the law, the police, her social worker. Even the one decent care worker at the Panopticon is too powerless to give her the help she needs.

It’s little different for the other ‘clients’ at the Panopticon. Like the young lesbian couple – Tash and Isla. Isla is mother to twins, who she unknowingly infected with HIV. She cuts herself, as if trying to cut the infection out. Tash turns tricks in the hope of raising enough money for all four of them to move into an apartment together. Cute guy John prostitutes himself too. Brian, the only person on the ward who actually seems insane, is loathed by everyone and often beaten, so you can only imagine him getting worse. Not that a rosy future seems likely for anyone else, Anais least of all.

The police hate her. Her social worker buggered off to India to save elephants and has a very low opinion of her anyway. She’ll never get a fair trial, and she’ll probably spend the rest of her life locked up for something she doesn’t think she did. The experiment, she thinks, is on the verge of defeating her.

I thought the novel would have a spec fic element because of the way the experiment is described in the blurb, but early on it becomes clear that the experiment is a delusion. The term “psychotic schizophrenia” comes up, which would no surprise considering Anais’s ongoing drug use. The experiment is an interesting comment on Anais’s experiences, however, and a twisted version of a teenager’s narcissism and identity crisis. Her life is so fucked up, and has always been so fucked up, that it seems like there must be some malevolent force trying to see how far she can be pushed before she breaks. Surely it can’t all be random?

In addition, the experiment helps Anais cope with the circumstances of her birth – she’s never known anything about either of her parents (her mother supposedly ran away after giving birth), and doesn’t know anyone she’s related to.

Identity problem. Funny that. Fifty-odd moves, three different names, born in a nuthouse to a nobody that was never seen again. Identity problem? I dinnae have an identity problem—I dinnae have an identity, just reflex reactions and a disappearing veil between this world and the next. (It’s a Scottish novel, in case you’re wondering about the spelling.)

She feels like nobody has ever wanted her and nobody cares about her, or at least not anyone who can help her. With the experiment, however, she can replace the idea that her mother abandoned her with the idea that she never had parents but was grown in a lab. The scientists running the experiment care about her a great deal, even if it’s just because she’s their test subject. In a sick way, the experiment gives her life some purpose, albeit a purpose imposed on her by invisible observers. When she considers the possibility that the experiment is just a delusion, it’s even more heartbreaking that if it were real:

What if there was no experiment? What if my life was so worthless that it was of absolutely no importance to anyone?

It’s painfully easy to see how Anais has come to feel this way, but on the other hand she’s created her own identity, and her fate became important to me as the reader. I don’t easily identify or even empathise with delusional drug addicts facing prison sentences, but I really liked Anais. Aside from the swearing and belligerent attitude, she’s not what what you’d assume a juvenile delinquent to be, with her taste for vintage clothing, her soft heart, and her strong moral code. Anais is a good person, but most people would never notice that, and she knows it. There’s a scene where she’s interrogated by a woman who has already decided that Anais is a criminal who needs to spend the rest of her life in jail. Anais knows there’s no point trying to prove otherwise, even as she rages against the way she’s been perceived:

“[…]Do you have anything to say?”
Aye. Aye, I do. It’s this: here is what you don’t know—I’d lie down and die for someone I loved; I’d fuck up anyone who abused a kid, or messed with an old person. Sometimes I deal, or I trash things, or I get in fights, but I am honest as fuck and you’ll never understand that. I’ve read books you’ll never look at, danced to music you couldnae appreciate, and I’ve more class, guts and soul in my wee finger than you will ever, ever have in your entire, miserable fucking life.

Anais does have class and guts and soul, and you see it in the intimate first-person narrative, and in the relationships she forms with the other teenagers at the Panopticon. They become a little family of sorts, supporting each other through the miseries of their lives. The sad reality is that none of that goodness is guaranteed to save them from further suffering, and this book is full of the horror and tragedy of abandoned teenagers in the real world. Mercifully, Fagan avoids graphic descriptions of the most difficult scenes – Anais often seems too disturbed or traumatised to describe something in detail, or she’s so high that it’s hallucinogenic. Still, that doesn’t stop it from being shocking or heartbreaking, and you should be warned that this book contains self-mutilation, rape, and death. Caring about the characters makes it more hurtful and as the reader (or at least as an adult reader) you know exactly what’s going on even if Anais doesn’t state it outright.

The narrative can also be difficult for some, but for different reasons. There isn’t much of a plot and very little is resolved. There’s almost nothing Anais can do about her situation except wait and see if the cop wakes up. The ending leaves us unsure as to what will happen to her. It suits the story though – Anais does not live in a world of certainties or structure, so it makes more sense for questions to remain unanswered. The best thing about the book is simply meeting Anais and witnessing what becomes her climactic struggle against the experiment, which matters to her whether or not it’s real.

As to the YA question – I think it’s a grim but incredible book for a reader of any age, including teenagers who think they’re up to the challenge. I never liked having my reading censored, but besides that Anais is a great character partly because she’s a teenager. I’ve read quite a few YA novels with characters who happen to be teens but could easily be 10 or 20 years older. Fagan however, does a great job of making this book about being a teenager, specifically a teenager in a particularly tragic set of circumstances. For that, and lots of other reasons, I highly recommend it.

iD by Madeline Ashby

iD by Madeline AshbyTitle: iD
Series: The Machine Dynasty #2
Madeline Ashby
Angry Robot
25 June 2013
science fiction
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

Please note: this review contains spoilers for vN (The Machine Dynasty #1). It’s essential to start there, and I highly recommend checking this series out. If you haven’t you can read my review of vN here.

At the end of vN, Amy defeated her grandmother Portia by raising the body of a massive group of vN beneath the ocean. Their combined processing power has given her god-like powers which she has since used to design and create her own island – a customised vN paradise where Amy has paid close attention to even the tiniest details, like the timing of the breeze and the width of the tree branches.

Amy’s immense power allows her to watch over everyone, and she has built strong trade relationships to help her island flourish. She and Javier – whose POV we follow for this story – are enjoying a peaceful, idyllic existence with Javier’s iterations and a growing vN population. Their only major problem is sex – Javier wants it, but Amy refuses him because, with his failsafe, she’s not sure if he can choose to have sex with her or if he’s just programmed to. Having seen how humans exploit vN, she’s afraid of doing the same to him, but the issue is causing a lot of tension between them.

But obviously their wonderful life won’t last long anyway. Amy already terrifies humanity because she doesn’t have a failsafe and isn’t forced to adore and protect humans. Now she’s probably the most powerful being on the planet, but without any concern for her creators. Then when she takes drastic measures to protect the island from a high-tech intruder, Javier also becomes deeply concerned about the power she wields because she holds power over other vN too.

With his mind in tumult, Javier makes some poor decisions and is manipulated into doing something so terrible that he loses Amy, his iterations, and his home, while unleashing a danger that could start an apocalyptic war between humans and vN. He spends the rest of the novel trying desperately to be reunited with Amy, while society edges toward chaos around him.

Like vN, iD is a mixture of action and dire adventure tied up with social revolution. But most importantly – and most enjoyably – it explores an experience of being AI, specifically the experience of being a humanoid robot designed to be a servant and sex slave for humans. What does this mean for the relationship between humans and AI? As Ashby has pointed out, the vN aren’t human but they think of themselves as people. They simply have a different kind of subjectivity, a different way of experiencing the world. But what happens when the humans believe vN aren’t ‘real’ people? The possibilities are often scary, but that’s exactly what makes this such an interesting, memorable series.

vN was told from the perspective of Amy, who enjoyed a privileged life in a relatively normal family and had a lot to learn about the status of vN in the world. Javier’s POV gives us what is undoubtedly the more common experience for vN – a much more sordid world of disempowerment and sexual exploitation. In a series of flashbacks we learn about Javier’s very brief childhood, when he was abandoned by his father and locked up in a Nicaraguan prison. He grew very quickly, both mentally and physically. After escaping from prison he remained homeless and unemployed, prostituting himself to humans and finding something similar to a home only during brief stints as someone’s sexual companion. While he often lacks knowledge that a human adult would have attained, it’s often easy to forget that Javier is only four years old, especially since he’s had more sexual experiences than most humans would have in a lifetime, and he already has thirteen children and one grandchild.

iD might have been more of a love story if Javier’s strategy wasn’t to fuck his way back to the woman he loves. But that’s what he does best – he’s great in bed, and his failsafe means that his pleasure is dependant on his partner’s. He plans to seduce the people he needs to get to Amy. However, if sex is Javier’s greatest strength, it’s also one of his greatest, most disturbing weaknesses. Because of his failsafe, Javier can’t choose to say no to a human and can’t fight them, which basically means that any human can easily rape him if they want to. Because he’s a robot they can’t hurt him physically, but that doesn’t make it any less of a violation.

Take into account the fact that this applies to all vN except Amy and you’ll get an idea of the content in this novel. For example, there’s a brothel that specialises in vN children, recalling the paedophile from book one who kept two child-sized vN so that he wouldn’t harm ‘real’ children. It’s not for sensitive readers, but if you can handle it, it raises all sorts of weighty questions and ideas. Should morality change when we’re dealing with robot people instead of human people? What kinds of relationships can exist between humans and vN?

As Ashby stated in last week’s guest post, the people who use vN are typically those who want to avoid the difficulties of relationships with humans. They want someone who they can treat like a machine, who can be relied on to behave in simple, predictable ways, and, sometimes, who can be abused in ways that would be criminal with a human. In the prologue, a scientist who seems to have something like Asperger’s describes his relationship with the vN Susie as his ideal, because he gets all the sex he wants without having to deal with any of the emotion.

That’s not to say humans and vN can’t have meaningful relationships. In book one, Amy’s father Jack really seemed to love his vN wife Charlotte. As Javier mentions in iD, that is the ideal that vN hope for – to find a human (preferably a rich one) who will shelter but not abuse them. Javier often receives such offers, and he genuinely likes some of the people he sleeps with. I find it sad though – he doesn’t really consider falling in love with a human; he can only hope that he won’t be abused by one. The potential long-term relationships he can have with human are inevitably compromises – a far cry from the companionship he shared with Amy.

And the vN can feel love – it’s what Amy and Javier feel for each other, despite their difficulties. They feel so much more besides, as the first part of the novel makes clear, as Amy and Javier struggle with the issue of sex. Javier’s sexual advances can be a little bit troubling, given that he keeps pushing while Amy keeps refusing. He’s not violent, but his persistence made me uncomfortable and Amy frequently distance herself from him as a result (which makes him feel like an asshole in turn). However, it’s it’s not Amy who needs protection, but Javier. They already have an intimate relationship – they sleep naked together, kiss, fool around. They are a couple and early on Javier starts calling her his wife. It’s only sex that Amy objects to. But, as Javier rightly points out, she’s being a hypocrite. She’s so worried about his failsafe, yet she refuses to remove it even though she has the power to do so.

I could talk about the nuances of these issues all day, but I should stop now before I spoil the subtleties of this book for you. I will make a few comments on the plot and pace though. The first part of the book really stood out for me – it was just brilliant. We learn a bit about the development of the vN at New Eden Ministries, and the god-complex of the humans behind the new technology. Then Amy’s island offers an amazing futuristic paradise, while the character relationships kept me hooked on the story. When Javier brought this section to an end it felt so devastating that I paused to take it in.

What follows is more frantic and action-packed, but admittedly I didn’t love it quite as much as the preceding parts. It’s Ashby’s depiction of vN experiences and Javier’s character that captured me rather than the story. The ending was also too sentimental for my tastes, but on the other hand it balances out the more harrowing content. Javier’s quest takes precedence, but it’s also tied up with the fact that the vN as a whole also find themselves at the start of either their revolution or their apocalypse – developments that are both exciting and complex. There’s a lot going on, and, as with vN, I sometimes struggled to keep track of all the locations, characters, and objectives. That’s not to say it wasn’t a fantastic read, but I may have to read it again before I read book three, which I will definitely be reading. I seldom read series, so my excitement about books two and three is both rare and telling. Do I even need to mention that I really think you should read this book?

I also suggest you check out some of the interviews and guest posts Madeline has been doing for iD blog tour. She speaks about her books, of course, but also offers broader discussions of the ideas within them:

Guest Posts
On robot, human and other subjectivities at the Little Red Reviewer

On gender at Uncorked Thoughts
On female writers in the sf and dystopian markets at Escapism
On making non-humans seem human at Civilian Reader
On fear and being unable to go home at John Scalzi’s The Big Idea
And for the sake of convenience, here’s another link to Madeline’s Violin in a Void guest post on the relationship between humans and AI.

My Bookish Ways
The Quillery
A Fantastical Librarian
Interview with Javier at My Shelf Confessions

Review of Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Paprika by Yasutaka Tsutsui

Title: Paprika
 Yasutaka Tsutsui
Published: First published in 1993; this translation published on 5 February 2013
 Vintage Books
Genre: science fiction, fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 4/10

Please note: this review contains some spoilers. I haven’t revealed any details about the ending, but I have discussed a major scene from the middle of the novel.

Atsuko Chiba is gifted and stunningly beautiful psychoanalytic therapist. She and her partner Kosaku Tokita have invented and developed technology that allows therapists to view and engage with the dreams of their patients, treating them at a subconscious level. For this, Atsuko and Tokita have been nominated for a Nobel Prize. In the early days of the technology however, Atsuko worked with it illegally, secretly using the devices to treat wealthy, powerful men who couldn’t afford to have their mental problems made public. To protect herself, she created an alter ego named Paprika, disguised to look like a younger, woman. Now, the Administrator of the Institute for Psychiatric Research asks Atsuko to become Paprika the dream detective once again, in order to help a friend who has been suffering from panic attacks.

Paprika’s reappearance coincides with a variety of troubles at the Institute. Journalists have been chasing rumours about Atsuko’s love life, her identity as Paprika and the illegal activities she may have engaged in. One of the psychotherapists falls into a catatonic state after viewing the dreams of a schizophrenic patient, leading to the rumour that the dream devices make schizophrenia contagious. But in fact the therapist was deliberately driven insane in an act of sabotage by two other employees – Inui and his handsome young protégé Osanai – who believe that the dream devices are immoral and that Atsuko and Tokita should not be allowed to win the Nobel Prize.

The situation becomes dire when Tokita creates tiny but powerful new versions of the devices. These upgrades – called DC Minis – are soon stolen by Inui and Osanai who use them for sexual purposes. Because Atsuko/Paprika lives in the same building and is treating new patients late at night, her devices start to pick up on their dreams. Soon, things spiral out of control, with dreams bleeding into each other and eventually invading reality. With the help of the men in her life, Atsuko/Paprika has to battle her enemies in both the real world and the dream one, as they persist in their diabolical attempts to put an end to her research, her position at the Institute, and her chance at winning the Nobel Prize.


In the blurb, Paprika is lauded as Yasutaka Tsutsui’s “masterpiece”. Personally, that leaves me with no reason to seek out the rest of his work, but at least there’s a lot to discuss about this novel. The story sets up a conflict between tradition and scientific progress. The two villains, Inui and Osanai, are strict traditionalists. They have a traditional master/student relationship, with the middle-aged Inui passing on his ideas to Osanai and giving him orders for the plan to sabotage Atsuko. They believe that technology should not be used in psychotherapy:

Like his mentor Seijiro Inui, Osanai fervently believed that technology had no place in the field of psychoanalysis. Many mental illnesses in the modern era had arisen from the rampant excesses of science and technology in the first place; the very idea of using science and technology to treat them was fundamentally wrong. It violated the principles of nature.


he felt that Atsuko’s practice of indiscriminately accessing patients’ dreams, violating their mental space for the sake of her treatment, ran counter to all accepted morality; it far exceeded the tolerable limits of psychotherapy. If such actions were to win her the Nobel Prize, it would mean that psychiatry for the sake of humanity had been reduced to science for the sake of technology. Patients would then start to be treated as objects. The warm, human psychoanalysis that Osanai and the others had expended so much effort to learn would become discarded as old-fashioned medicine, ungrounded in theory and no better than alchemy or witchcraft. Until PT devices could be properly evaluated and used correctly, Tokita and Chiba had to be prevented from winning the Nobel Prize, whatever it took. This was Osanai’s firm conviction.

Some of this might sounds reasonable, but Osanai and Inui are most certainly not. They complain bitterly that Atsuko and Tokita are being irresponsible and inhuman in their use of the dream devices, but then steal the DC Minis and use them without concern for the consequences. Their hypocrisy becomes particularly ludicrous when they use the devices to drive people insane as part of an attempt to show how dangerous the technology is, all the while mouthing off self-righteously about how Atsuko and Tokita need to be stopped! They call the new DC Minis “the Devil’s Seed” and their vendetta has many religious overtones, with Inui actually framing the whole thing as a holy war in which he is a saviour fighting on the side of good.

But Inui’s objection is not only a moral one – several years before he lost the Nobel Prize to another scholar, and now he’s clearly very jealous of Atsuko and Tokita, particularly because he sees them as inferiors: Tokita is an obese, child-like man, and Atsuko is a woman. Which brings me to the gender issues. In keeping with their traditionalist mindsets, both Osanai and Inui hold very misogynistic views about women, undermining their intellectual abilities and objectifying their bodies:

Osanai found himself better equipped to tolerate the role of Atsuko Chiba, compared to that of Tokita. After all, she was a just woman. As a woman, she had no ideology. So it stood to reason that the only thought in her mind was to faithfully, cheerfully pursue the utility value and application of the PT devices developed by Tokita. That was what all female scientists were like anyway; nothing more could be expected of them. This was not a question of looking down on women, but rather one of recognizing their natural disposition.


He always felt immensely aroused after seeing Atsuko Chiba, particularly when he’d clapped eyes on her alluring figure from close quarters. It usually ended in an act of self-abuse, but today, as luck would have it, he was expecting a visit from Senior Nurse Sayama. He could use her body to relieve his physical arousal.


Inui had always treated women as commodities, outlets for carnal desires; he recognized no spirituality in them whatsoever.


In one moment of rage, Osanai goes so far as to claim that Atsuko isn’t a real woman because she fails to show the sense of submission he expects from her sex and isn’t interested in him despite his incredibly good looks:

Call yourself a woman?! You may be beautiful, but you’re no woman. The only men you can love are freaks and mental patients who let you do what you like! That’s not what I call a woman!”

It’s not just the villains who are misogynists though. Atsuko finds a similar attitude among the press, implying that it’s a great social ill as well:

to Atsuko, attending a press conference simply meant being exposed to public view in a way that was barely welcome. In her view, the journalists weren’t interested in noting some form of higher intelligence in the young, beautiful woman called Atsuko Chiba. They hated the idea that she was their intellectual superior, and merely seemed bent on finding something in her that would reinforce their preconceived image of Japanese femininity.


they would also happily grasp any chance of belittling Atsuko Chiba, whose exasperating combination of beauty and genius made her a suitable target for their wrath.

By defying the press, Osanai and Inui, it seems like Atsuko – and the book as a whole – would function as a critique of this misogyny and the “empire mentality” to which it is attributed. However, the book doesn’t take a progressive stance on gender or sexuality. Inui and Osanai are in a committed, loving relationship, but the book demonises their homosexuality, using it to portray the two men as vile and perverse. Atsuko/Paprika is the only major female character in a cast that has room for many more, and when she needs help it’s inevitably men – older men with wealth and power – who come to her rescue. She has their allegiance because she’s treated them, and it seems like Paprika only treats older, rich men who she inevitably finds herself attracted to. At one point, she completely undermines the intelligence for which she is so frequently praised, claiming she is successful because of her beauty rather than her brains:

“Actually, I’m not really that great a therapist. I just use my looks to help the treatment along. Maybe that’s why I’m so successful. It shouldn’t be allowed, should it.”

She’s being a bit self-deprecating, perhaps – there are long scenes describing her dream-world treatments, and she obviously uses more than her beauty. Nevertheless the men in the book, both good and bad, are always going on about how beautiful she is and how they’ve fallen in love with her as a result. It’s her body they value, rather than her mind and the novel does nothing to critique this.

Then there’s an extremely weird attempted-rape scene that I’ve struggled to unpack. Frustrated by their inability to thwart Atsuko, Inui tells Osanai that he “must rape her” because “Inui’s view, a product of empire mentality, was that a man only need rape a woman to put her under his dominion”. Osanai claims to be in love with Atsuko, and is thrilled by this order because it gives him “a perverse moral justification for acts he himself sought to commit”. He believes that raping Atsuko will “enslave her to him”. It’s appalling, but these are the villains, so at least we know the novel doesn’t endorse this view. But the problems here go deeper.

When Osanai goes to Atsuko’s apartment to rape her, she fights back, so he hits her repeatedly in the face. Realising that Osanai might “half kill her” to get what he wants, she decides to “let him rape her” to avoid getting hurt. “If she were a man” she says “she would have fought him until her dying breath. But she was a woman. She had no intention of aping a man’s senseless insistence on fighting to the death”.

Osanai responds to Atsuko’s capitulation with “relief and tearful joy” (I can imagine this only in kooky anime terms). However, Atsuko insists that he rape her “properly”, by which she means that he has to “satisfy” her. We’re told that it’s been years since Atsuko had sex with a man (dream-world sex doesn’t count) and Osanai actually presents a rather convenient opportunity to satisfy all the pent-up desire that’s been causing “an unnatural flow in her libido”. But because Osanai finally has what he wants, and because Atsuko is so devastatingly beautiful, he is too overwhelmed to perform, claiming that Atsuko’s “aura is too strong”. The two trade insults about each other’s lack of masculinity or femininity, and eventually Osanai leaves. Immediately after, Atsuko takes a relaxing bath and thinks very calmly and analytically about what just happened. She isn’t upset; instead, she starts thinking about sex with another man. Technically her face should be covered in terrible bruises and her mouth swollen from Osanai’s beating, but this seems to have been forgotten.

This is one of the most fucked up scenes I’ve come across in fiction and I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it. On the one hand, I can see how it could be read as subversive, and given some of the ideas about gender in the novel, that may have been the author’s intention. Osanai goes in assuming that his masculinity can be used as a weapon against a woman, but instead he’s crushed by her femininity – her decision to stop fighting, and her overwhelming beauty. Rape is very much about power, and Osanai is revealed to be utterly pathetic. Atsuko isn’t even shaken let alone enslaved or defeated. She emerges victorious, analyses the situation, and dismisses it.

And yet, everything about this feels so wrong. Atsuko thwarts Osanai firstly by becoming passive. She stops fighting, undresses, and positions herself on the couch. This, combined with her beauty, is what undoes Osanai. Atsuko didn’t plan his defeat; if anything she’s just lucky to accidentally exploit his weaknesses. In the meantime, we see a female character plagued with some of the biggest problems in the depiction of women in the media – the association of passivity with femininity and women being reduced to and valued for their beauty and little else. This might be what saves Atsuko, but it reinforces misogynistic stereotypes. There are also the sickening ideas that rape is a display of masculinity and that a woman could enjoy it or want it, with the whole thing finally dismissed as relatively unimportant.

I can also critique this scene without a feminist perspective – it’s just so utterly ridiculous and implausible in terms of character. A man comes to a woman’s apartment, they argue, he hits her repeatedly in the face, tears her clothing off, and tries to force himself on her. She’s in so much pain that she agrees to stop struggling, but finds herself turned on a few moments later. I’m not going to entertain the possibility of a rape fantasy here – Atsuko doesn’t express any sexual preferences except for an attraction to wealthy, powerful older men, and Osanai is none of those things. He’s extremely handsome, but Atsuko stated before that she dislikes him. We’re expected to believe that, because she hasn’t had sex with men for a long time, she’s so horny that even a would-be rapist, who is also her enemy and a man she doesn’t like, presents an opportunity for enjoyment. It’s as if lust is just something that fills her up and must be poured out.

And the attack hardly seems to bother her. I can’t imagine anyone – male or female – being nonchalant about getting beat up and violated in their own home.  I can see this as subversive or triumphant only in the most theoretical terms. Otherwise, it just looks like bad writing. Overall, this scene is just too weird and problematic for me, and I don’t like the way it was handled.

I could actually say that about many aspects of the novel though. Reading Paprika frequently reminded me of watching anime, which, I must admit, I don’t get and seldom enjoy. Like anime, the novel is full of exaggerated or incongruous emotions, the two villains are absurdly petty, vindictive and hypocritical (not to mention stupid), there are catastrophic events that get swept under the rug, and of course there are all those disturbing ideas about gender and sexuality. I spoke to my boyfriend about this aspect of the novel, since he is a big anime fan and has watched a lot more than I have. According to him, these things – the emotions, the villains, the objectification of women – are all pretty standard features of anime. I’m happy to shrug off some of my issues with the novel as part of a cultural tradition that I simply don’t appreciate. After all, I enjoy some pretty ludicrous action and horror movies; I’m just accustomed to that brand of absurdity. But that doesn’t make me think any better of this novel, and anyway I’m far less forgiving of its issues with gender and sexuality.

Horror that’s too horrible? A review of Shadows by Joan de la Haye

Title: Shadows
Joan de la Haye
Published: 2008
Genre: Horror
eBook purchased on Smashwords
My Rating: 3/10

This review contains some mild spoilers.

Sarah’s father just committed suicide, and she’s having a hard time dealing with it, particularly because a demonic, yellow-eyed man keeps appearing out of nowhere and scaring the hell out of her. No one else can see the man (who she later names Jack), and he plagues Sarah with gory hallucinations in which her loved ones are dead and mutilated. The hallucinations seem far too real to Sarah, but to everyone else it seems like she’s going insane. To make things worse, she gets no sympathy from her selfish boyfriend Kevin who reacts to Sarah’s need for him with anger and disgust. He thinks nothing of cheating on her with the sexy, aloof Denise, who also happens to be his sister Carol’s girlfriend. Kevin, Denise and Carol form a twisted, incestuous threesome with a parallel plot involving some sick plans for taking revenge on the people who have hurt them.

I was in the mood for horror when I picked Shadows up, and I was pretty excited about it because I love the darkly fascinating worlds that you can find in novels about insanity. Unfortunately, I found neither the horror I was hoping for nor the dark world I wanted to explore. In fact I did not like Shadows at all, for several different reasons. Firstly, the writing – it’s not that bad but it’s pedestrian and adds nothing to the story. It’s also riddled with continuity errors, especially when it comes to characters – often characters do or say things that don’t fit their personalities.

Which brings me to my second problem: characterisation. On the whole, Shadows doesn’t have any likeable characters. Sarah initially had my sympathy, but she’s so weak and pathetic I quickly grew tired of her. Kevin is an appalling boyfriend, not only because he cheats on Sarah but because he doesn’t show her one iota of affection during the novel. Denise is an oversexed sociopath. Carol was molested as a child, and the trauma has turned her into a vengeful psychopath.

Unlikeable characters however, are not a flaw in themselves. My problem here is that these characters feel forced. Sarah is too much of a victim, while Kevin, Denise and Carol are too crazy and cruel. Yes, people like Kevin and Denise do exist in the world. And yes, you can look at the evidence and decide that it makes sense for Sarah and Carol to be the way they are. My problem is that you have to take that step back from the novel before you can really accept these characters. While reading, they seem unnatural, overdone.

But my biggest problem with Shadows was the grotesque sexual violence and depravity. Please note that I’m not referring to its sexual content in general: yes, there is a lot of it and while some would complain that it’s gratuitous, I’d argue that there other unnecessary details in the novel, and the sex doesn’t deserve to be singled out. In fact, some of it provides the most exciting content Shadows has to offer. I would also argue that some of the sexual depravity – incest in particular – is part of the characterisation, a means of showing just how messed up Carol has become, and how much of a sex addict Kevin is.

But Shadows goes too far. The following scene in particular was so bad, I almost abandoned the book. The context: Jack the demon tricked Sarah into stabbing Kevin, and he’s now in hospital, venting his anger with Denise and Carol. They’re worried that Sarah won’t get the punishment they think she deserves, in which case Carol suggests they make their own plans for revenge:

“I know a couple of guys who, for a couple of grand, can organise a girl to be gang-raped. They’ll dump her somewhere in Soweto. It’s worse than dying.”

“I don’t know what’s scarier, the fact that you know people like that, or that you even think like that,” Kevin said, looking at his sister with new-found respect.

“I think it’s sexy when you think like that,” Denise said and planted a hot kiss on Carol’s lips.

“Hey, ladies,” Kevin said, trying to get their attention. “I’m the one who was stabbed. I’m the one who should be getting some loving.”

“Sorry baby,” they cooed, cuddled onto the narrow bed and smothered him with kisses.

As they hugged and kissed him, visions of Sarah being raped and left for dead, in some ditch, made him smile.  He made a silent promise to himself, she would pay and the girls would help him take his revenge.

I couldn’t believe how many disgusting things made its way into so few lines – a woman suggests using gang-rape as a means of taking revenge; the suggestion causes her brother to respect her more than he did before; another woman is turned on by the thought of her girlfriend arranging to have someone gang-raped; and then all three start kissing and cuddling each other. What. The. Fuck.

After my knee-jerk revulsion however, I tried to think calmly about it and even asked other horror fans for their opinion as I struggled to decide if this could be considered part of the horror or if it’s just in bad taste. Obviously, the whole thing is supposed to be appalling, and it makes the three villains more despicable. This is also a horror novel and there’s no denying the fact that I was quite horrified when I read this. The thing is, I’ve read novels that have scarier, darker villains than these three but didn’t resort to using gang rape as a shock tactic.

And being shocked just wasn’t good enough for me. I wanted to be scared, unnerved and my final problem with Shadows is that it just couldn’t do that to me with either its sexual perversions, Sarah’s personal demon Jack and the hallucinations he makes her suffer, or even its promising aspect – the curse of being considered insane.

The gory visions Jack conjures up are standard blockbuster slasher-movie fare, and they get repetitive without moving the plot along. For first half of the novel, Sarah’s part of the story is largely about hallucinating (at home, at work, at the movies). Later, Sarah has to accept Jack’s presence in her life, and he becomes an almost comical figure. It’s his job as a demon to make her kill herself but she keeps resisting and soon Jack has all the menace of a frustrated cubicle drone.

There is a greater sense of menace towards the end as the novel picks up its pace and the various strands of the plot are drawn together, but by then nothing could have saved it for me. I can at least add a disclaimer by saying that I also disliked The Hellbound Heart by Clive Barker for similar reasons. The Hellbound Heart was the basis for the movie Hellraiser (1987) and is considered something of a horror classic, but I just thought it was gross. If being shocked and disgusted is what you want from the horror genre, then you may find Shadows satisfying, but unfortunately for me I was hoping for a lot more.

Buy a copy of Shadows

Exhibit A by Sarah Lotz

Title: Exhibit A
Sarah Lotz
Publisher: Penguin
Published:  May 2009
My copy
My Rating
: 8/10

Buy a copy of Exhibit A

Georgie Allen, “Cape Town’s worst-dressed lawyer” and owner of what might be Cape Town’s worst car, can’t afford to add a pro bono case to his long list of troubles. But among those troubles is the fact that his love life has been reduced to giving another shot, so when the gorgeous Rachel asks him to help her sister Nina, Georgie doesn’t even bother to discuss his fee. Nina was raped by a cop in a police cell in Barryville, “one of those tiny South African towns that’s stuck in a time warp and is dripping with small-town prejudice and incipient racist values” (6). As expected, the police didn’t bother opening an investigation when Nina laid a charge, so without Georgie’s help, the rapist will get away without so much as a rap on the knuckles.

Georgie leaves immediately for Barryville, stopping only to pick up his friend Advocate Patrick McLennan (aka “the Poison Dwarf”). Patrick brings along a cute but filthy mongrel that’s currently the key witness in a burglary and who Georgie aptly names Exhibit A. The dog promptly makes a bed out of Georgie’s jacket and begins the first of many ball-licking sessions.

If I had to pick just one reason that I’m glad I read this book, it would be learning the word “scrolfing” – Sarah Lotz’s term for the noise Exhbit A makes when he’s “been attacking [his] bollocks… with a dedication that would have been admirable, had it been doing anything else.” (1) Scrolfing is a “combination of grunts and the same liquid smacking noises my granddad used to make whenever he ate a chop without his dentures in” (1). It’s a very useful and oddly endearing term, specifically because I also have a loveable mongrel who makes the exact same disgusting noise despite the fact that she doesn’t have any bollocks to attack.

As it stands though, “scrolfing” is hardly the only thing that makes Exhibit A a good read. It also has amazing characters, a good plot, and it’s incredibly funny. Most of the humour comes from Georgie’s narration – a mixture of witty observations, mild self-deprecation and sarcasm. Just as funny is Patrick, a diminutive, junk-food scoffing Scottish lawyer who makes up for his small stature by being “total and utter bastard” (2) whether in the court-room, passing the bill in a restaurant, or arguing with his long-suffering wife with whom he has somehow conceived five children despite almost never seeing her because he’s always working. Whatever the weather Patrick wears a 3-piece wool suit, he has a strange talent for never spilling anything, even when eating Frosties with milk in Georgie’s lurching car, and he can be fantastically tactless.

Patrick asks Georgie to look after Exhibit A and Georgie grudgingly agrees, thereby turning his terrible car into a terribly smelly car and getting his awful clothes covered in a layer of white fur. The little dog doesn’t play much of a role in the main plot, but he’s a constant presence in the story and becomes an integral part of Georgie’s life and character; there’s a reason why his name is also the title of this book.

Georgie, Patrick and Exhibit A give heart and comic relief to a novel that might otherwise be painful to read. Unlike most crime or legal dramas, Exhibit A doesn’t deal with criminal masterminds or glamorous court cases. Instead its subject matter is something disturbingly common in South Africa – rape and police corruption. The perpetrator isn’t especially smart – he’s just a small-minded bastard who took advantage of his power to force himself on an easy target who probably wouldn’t stand up for her rights and couldn’t afford to seek justice.

On the downside (depending on how you see it), this means that Exhibit A lacks the thrills you might expect from John Grisham or similar. With grim dedication to a realistic depiction of crime in South Africa, the triumphs are mostly small and the frustrations many, and there are no heart-stopping moments when a shocking twist or major new clue is uncovered.

However, the kind of crime Exhibit A tackles gives the novel class. Not for a moment do you get the sense that the crimes committed here are somehow intended to be entertaining – an inescapable feeling in a lot of crime fiction where the crimes and criminals are so fascinating that the victims are only so many broken eggs needed to cook up a riveting story.

Exhibit A doesn’t sacrifice Nina that way. Nor does it have to. The story is compelling without being sensational, the humour is fresh and sharp, and the characters are so memorable you could feel that you’ve met them personally.

Reading over this review, it almost seems like I’ve written about two different books – a comedy about a pair of oddball lawyers and a scruffy mongrel on the one hand, and on the other a serious legal drama about two noble lawyers fighting for the rights of a woman who’s been abused by a corrupt police system. But somehow Sarah Lotz has sewn it all together without any of the elements ever clashing. Highly recommended.