I was trying to figure out how to tell him that earning £7 an hour was the opposite of fun. That having to smile all day at people, some of whom were rude, others of whom were nice, most of whom just looked through you as though you were a human shaped machine, emptied the ‘you’ out of you. That having £2 left over when you’ve paid your bills and bought your food and the odd drink in Wetherspoon’s doesn’t bring much relief, because what about next month? What if you get less shifts next month? What if you lose your Oyster Card? What if someone jacks your purse with your last £20? What if one of the soles you’ve been walking around for months with holes in finally falls off? What then?
21-year-old Beth is in prison. We meet her after her counsellor, Erica, has asked her to write a list of good things about herself. Beth’s response to this is to call it ‘retarded’; Fisher uses this as a way to quickly reveal both Beth and Erica’s personalities. Erica asks her to explain the use of the word, while Beth protests that she’s ‘not a retard’ becoming defensive. Once Erica begins to explain the word to her, there’s a glimpse of how scared and vulnerable Beth is.
Each chapter is titled with the good thing Beth is writing about, for example, chapter two is ‘Running until your body is a good place to be’ in which Beth reveals herself to a talented runner. Besides metaphorically, this can never come to anything because of course Beth’s mum and subsequent foster carers can’t afford to buy her good equipment, take her to meets and so on. But it is Beth’s behaviour which sees her thrown out of the school club. She relates times when she mimicked the coach in the changing room:
Behind me I heard a sad screech, like the ones cats make when you step on their tails. It was the coach she’d seen me […] I wanted to run out to the coach and tell her I was sorry and that my favourite way of falling asleep was to replay all the good things she’d said to me, but I’d never said anything like that to anyone, and I didn’t know how to start.
Each of Beth’s journal entries are written to her child who she no longer sees. On family days, she is the only inmate of the group she hangs around with who doesn’t have any visitors.
Fisher shows how the system fails vulnerable people. While teachers and social workers and foster carers do their best, there are cracks large enough for someone to fall through: what if someone decides fostering isn’t for them? What if a foster carer becomes ill? What if a social worker leaves and isn’t replaced immediately? What if a teacher tries to report something within their own school and is told it’s been resolved? By writing the novel in Beth’s voice, Fisher explores all of these things without it becoming a polemic. The reader sees and understands the things happening to Beth, even if Beth doesn’t fully understand the mechanisms herself.
Beth’s voice is convincing and also prevents Fisher from making the novel sentimental. The closest it comes is when Beth reads Of Mice and Men to one of the other inmates so she can talk to her teenage son about it, who’s studying it at school. It’s a beautiful and heart-breaking section of the book.
Some of Beth’s behaviour is bad and shocking but even at its worst, we can see what’s led to it. There’s a perfect metaphor for this towards the end of the book. Beth has attempted to run away from her life but, not knowing what else to do, she finds herself back on a train to London without a ticket.
‘No,’ I said. The part of me I lied with had run out. ‘No, I don’t have a ticket. I’ve never had one.’
‘But you have to,’ he said. ‘You have to get one before you board.’
‘I tried,’ I said. ‘I’ve been asking for one. My whole fucking life I’ve been asking. But they wouldn’t give one to me.’
The inspector raised his eyebrows and I wondered, was I meant to know him? Was he some uncle I didn’t remember?
‘That,’ he said, ‘I find very hard to believe. Leicester is well served for ticket offices.’
‘You don’t get it,’ I said, and at this point, I felt other people looking at me. I peered around the old man and yep, sure enough, the strangers in the next scene were looking up from their phones and their Kindles. ‘None of you do. You never will.’
All the Good Things is perfectly timed considering the state of the society we’re living in.
Thanks to Viking for the review copy.