‘What if you did a very bad thing… but that wasn’t the end of the story,’ reads the blurb. It’s never the end of the story. As you might expect from the title All The Good Things, Claire Fisher‘s novel doesn’t take such a straightforward view. This isn’t a book about good things, but the darker ones, and the shades of grey.
At only 21 and having experienced as many of the trials of life as it seems possible to have, Beth is in prison, due to committing a crime that the world and she believes can never be forgiven. She is, in her own words, 100% TM bad. And through self punishment and ingrained thoughts will never let that go.
But her counsellor, Erika, has hope. No one is all bad she believes. Through writing about the good things that she has, Beth is coaxed to realising that she is not evil, nothing is black and white, and the past is not the future. Snapshots of Beth’s life come through diary entries, letters, care reports, social worker summaries and first person narratives. We know that there has been a mum, and a baby. We learn about relationships, failed ones. There’s a few friendships that span both circumstantial and real.
But it’s fragmented, just like her past, and it’s this method of writing that turns a sad tale into a deep and emotional one. Detail of her breakdown are in fractured prose. Intense introspection in angry stream of consciousness. The memory drives the plot and the reader is with Beth as she confronts her actions and feels her emotions. We’re with her as she builds a life. Describing a childhood friendship, Beth writes ‘Being human doesn’t just mean connecting to other humans; it means connecting the human you are now with the ones you used to be.’
Female relationships play a key role in the story, and the way that Beth speaks of her unborn daughter as her team mate, ‘us’ is tender and heartening. This baby is the first person she has believed will never let her go. An unexpected pregnancy isn’t something that Beth can walk away from – unlike the father – and neither is it something that she wants to. Yet an unmarried mother with no money isn’t always welcomed. ‘I feel that as a society we are far harsher on ‘bad’ women than ‘bad’ men; I suppose that was another motivation in writing a character like Beth.’
Beth’s history of the care system, therapy and prison all influence her personality. Clearly she is not 100% bad, but like everyone, a product of her experiences. Claire loved the experience of writing a messy character. ‘It was her difficulty and complexity which kept me writing. Most characters I write are outsiders or oddballs in some way.’ Whether you believe that they are oddballs, byproducts of a structurally damaging society, or something more sinister, it’s true that prisoners don’t usually get a voice. If writing fiction has any duties, this might be one. As Claire says ‘For me, fiction is about taking the reader somewhere they’ve not been before. This might be a psychological place, it might be a culture or society they’ve not thought about. Writing about someone in prison allowed me to delve into all kinds of new places.’
On Claire’s website she lists books she’s loved and books that make her. Authors include Emma Unsworth, Sylvia Plath, Kate Tempest and Zadie Smith. With all of these writers, ‘it’s the voice which really grabs me – a voice which is unafraid to delve into all areas of life and which has a certain zest, or swagger. ‘ Beth is vulnerable and broken, but her strong voice keeps the momentum of the novel alive, even when her hope wains.
As well as her experience of working in secondary schools and its insight into the impact of family background, Claire spent a great deal of time researching prisons, the care system and trauma, and as well as speaking with researchers visited a women’s prison, ‘which was enormously eye-opening and helpful.’ It’s not an easy book to research and write, but Claire is lucky that her home city of Leeds scene is hugely supportive of writers and artists. ‘I can’t even imagine who I would be if I didn’t read or write; both activities have hugely improved my knack for listening and noticing and asking questions – all of which make for an enriched life.’ And a deep story. A story of hope.
‘You might think I’m retarded for hoping such a thing in the light, or rather the dark, of everything that’s happened.’ she writes. There’s always light and dark, always a past and a future, always action and inertia. There’s always people. There’s always life. It’s messy and chaotic and broken and confusing yet beautiful. Filled with bad things – but a lot of good.
Published in hardback by Viking on 1st June 2017, priced £12.99.