Something strange is going on in Bellhaven, South Carolina, an exurb of Charleston. It’s the spring of 1920, and everything is blooming at once. That means the Carolina jessamine, the honeysuckle, daffodils, dogwoods, azaleas, crepe myrtles and magnolias. The whole town looks like a Monet painting. If you’re familiar with the South, you know that just doesn’t happen. But here it is in James Markert’s tale of destiny and good versus evil in the Low Country.
Another bright, strange thing is the town itself. It’s multiracial, like many historical Southern towns, but everyone is equal. The African-American friends of the white protagonist, Ellsworth Newberry, feel free to come into his home and call him by his first name. The town hosts a congenial jumble of the Abrahamic religions and their offshoots. One character calls Bellhaven the highway to heaven, and it just may be. It seems that everything bad that happens here comes from the outside, like an infection.
One of these pathogens is a strange little chapel in the woods just outside of town. At first, it’s in a place of surpassing beauty, with blossoming trees and singing birds. Inside, the very air is fresh and invigorating, and people who enter hear the voices of their deceased loved ones, granting them forgiveness. The townspeople long to believe this is unalloyed goodness, but it isn’t. It’s “fool’s gold,” as Ellsworth says, a trick of the devil that must be resisted.
All Things Bright and Strange feels like an allegory, probably a religious one. Consider that four of the main characters are named Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. Then again, it might be an allegory of the evils of slavery and genocide, as the chapel is a place where slaves and Native Americans were tortured and killed. It may even be an allegory of drug addiction, as the need to revisit the chapel becomes a nearly irresistible craving. It may be all three. Whatever is going on, this magical novel warns us to be careful what we wish for. We may get it.