Wow. This book is rough. Even as a foster parent myself, having been through all the trainings, having heard what various kinds of hell some children in this world have to live through, I had a hard time handling all the honesty going on.
Anais is a fifteen-year-old girl in Scotland. She's been in foster care since her birth, the details of which are mostly unknown to her. Thus, she plays the birthday game every year—she imagines a new story of how she came to be born. On good days, she likes to imagine she was born in Paris. In darker times, she can't imagine being born of a human mother at all; she imagines she was conceived in a test tube as an experiment. Anais's fixation with her origins is a haunting refrain that she returns to time and again in her narration.
It's amazing that Anais is able to summon the will to continue living, considering the appalling life she's led. She was adopted by a kindly prostitute named Teresa, but when Teresa is killed by a john, Anais finds herself back in the system and suffering greatly from the loss. Eventually, Anais is assigned to the Panopticon, a group home for parentless teens in which the residents are monitored constantly from a mirrored tower. Anais forms bonds with some of the other kids (social workers call them “clients,” but the kids refer to themselves as “inmates”), but even those friendships will not be free of grief and loss.
There is redemption to be found here, but it's just the barest glimmer, and Fagan makes us wait for it. This isn't the story of a foul-mouthed party girl who finally gets her head on straight and makes good. This isn't the kind of book where the lonely, sweet orphan finds a loving, understanding adult to take her in and call her daughter. This is one long, bad trip, a dark hellscape from one end to the other. It's only in the final handful of pages that Anais lifts her eyes from the muck and gives us reason to hope, just a little, for her future, and there was a part of me that was afraid Fagan wouldn't afford us even that much. Because, after all, sometimes life doesn't.
This book is gritty and raw. It's also overflowing with foul language and abusive situations, so if you're not up for that, best pass on by this one. However, if you want to know what it's really like to be a lifer in foster care, if you want to be shocked, horrified, wrenched, and then cautiously inspired, look no further.
Bottom line: Brace yourself. Then read this book.