Bethany Mitchell is in prison for doing a ‘bad thing’, what that is isn’t revealed until close to the end of the book. Erika, Beth’s counsellor in prison asks her to record the good things in an attempt to get her to ultimately confront what she has done.
I started All the Good Things with an open-mind; what I didn’t expect was how hard the experience hit me.
Bethany is just twenty-one but her life was already an exercise in surviving from her earliest memories. And this is exactly what we learn as her good things are lessons she’s learnt, or people she’s bonded with as she makes her uncertain way through the care system. This isn’t a straightforward account of misery though as Bethany has experiences that I’m sure many of us can relate to from her first job at the Odeon, and those that many of us have been lucky enough to avoid such as being removed from her first foster home where she formed a bond with her foster-father Paul over her love of stories, however outlandish.
One of the things that is so compelling is that this girl who obviously has difficulty, however justified, in personal relationships is utterly realistic. She loves stories, she likes excitement and she lives in the moment. Beth is intelligent and troubled and with each episode of her life I wanted to step in and do something, quite what I wasn’t sure, but to let such a life travel in such a wayward manner was very much like watching a slow motioned car crash, ‘the bad thing’ or some other ‘bad thing’ felt the inevitable outcome.
The construction of the novel which has us simultaneously reaching back pretty much chronologically, through the episodes in Bethany’s life, as a child at school, with her boyfriends, leaving care and moving into her first flat and onto a relationship where she felt like she’d reached adulthood. We also see her growing in confidence as she is helped by Erika to make sense of her past and to hopefully work towards making a better future.
The book is almost a textbook lesson on life on one level that doing a bad thing does not make someone a bad person, on another when life is full of unhappy events, even if you have some good moments that can go on the list then sometimes one event leads to another and then to another until they become overwhelming.
Some items on Bethany’s list:
Friends you can be weird with.
How cats find the sun to lie in even on a cloudy day.
Reading books which make me laugh and books which make me cry and books which make me feel a bit more OK about who and where and what I am.
Ultimately Clare Fisher has hit the holy grail in writing about such a sensitive subject, not only making us care about her mixed-up protagonist from a less than easy starting point but doing so without explicitly excusing any of her behaviour. Only the hardest of hearts could read this story without feeling sympathy for more than one of the characters inside the covers.
I’d like to say a huge thank you to Penguin who kindly sent me a copy of All The Good Things ahead of publication on 1 June 2017.