|ALL THE GOOD THINGS
Clare Fisher (clarefisherwriter.com)Viking (www.penguinrandomhouse.co.uk)
Beth is 21 and in prison, her life ruined by a bad thing that she feels there is no atonement for. Her counsellor, Erika, gives Beth a notebook and asks her to write down all the good things in her life.
“But what if…I can’t think of any?”
If you’ve never seen a sad smile, you should’ve seen hers just then. “You will.”
And Erika is right. As Beth approaches the bad thing she has done, carefully, creeping up on it by way of the things that make her happy, a portrait of a troubled young life emerges, proof that even the “worst” people are never all bad.
I know what you’re thinking: Clare Fisher’s debut, All The Good Things, is not at all the type of book you expect to see featured here on Reader Dad. And you’re right, yet there was something about this slim tale of twenty-one-year-old Bethany that captured my attention and made this a must-read. Like many of the books I enjoy, Fisher’s story examines the darkness at the heart of the human soul; unlike many, though, it finds many redeeming qualities, a well-timed message that we’re not all as horrible as all that, at least not all of the time.
All The Good Things is structured as a kind of diary, Beth’s list of good things with explanatory notes. What emerges as we spend time with this young woman is a portrait of a stereotypical teenager with more than their fair share of bad luck, and an overwhelming sense of “wrong place, wrong time”. Beth has grown up in the British foster care system, shifted from one set of temporary parents to another, often for the most mundane of reasons: a young couple who have finally gotten pregnant and feel that the presence of an older foster child will somehow negatively impact the relationship with their natural child; an older parent who dies. As Beth grows, and the list of parents grows longer, so too does her impatience with the system, so that she ultimately rebels and ends up looking like the stereotypical problem child.
Beth pulls no punches, using the notebook as the perfect excuse to be brutally honest with herself, safe in the knowledge that no-one will ever read it unless she gives them permission to. Her problems haunt her as she enters the prison system, an aloofness born from the desire to have no ties, but which marks her out as someone who thinks she is better than everyone else. As she learns from her past experiences, her relationships inside begin to flower, too. Fisher places us squarely in the middle of Beth’s head, and that’s no mean feat: what do I, a 41-year-old man, know about being a 21-year-old girl who is a product of a failed foster care system? And yet, I feel an empathy with Beth, a sense that “there but by the grace of god”.
The story focuses on the simple pleasures in life: reading, running, “a soft ear in hard times” or “[s]melling a baby’s head right into your heart”. Beth writes for herself, and for her baby, and this approach breeds an honesty that is at times touching, at others almost difficult to witness. Yet there can only be one outcome, and the fact that this is a prison diary of sorts is a constant reminder of just what that outcome is. “The bad thing”, when it is finally revealed towards the novel’s end, comes as no great surprise, as horrific and heart-rending as it is, and our witnessing it as we do, through Beth’s eyes, leaves us with a sense of deep sympathy, rather than the self-hatred that is eating the young protagonist from the inside, a sense that what happened was inevitable, unavoidable and, as such, should not be the sole responsibility of this lonely young girl.
All The Good Things lives up to its title if not its subject matter, and succeeds in being an upbeat and strangely life-affirming tale. Fisher breathes life into Bethany, giving her a unique and affecting voice and a story that gets under the skin and demands that we have an opinion, that we are more than a casual observer. Beautifully told, this tale of a life only half-lived will stay with the reader for a long time and will ultimately leave us with a much sunnier outlook on life. You can’t afford to miss it.