REVIEW: All the World Beside by Garrard Conley

Reviewed by Toby LaPlant

Garrard Conley, author of the bestselling memoir Boy Erased, makes his fiction debut with All the World Beside, a soft-spoken exploration of the interplay between religious belief and personal fulfillment, and how love, in its many varieties, can expand our understanding of who makes up a family. With complex characters that embody contemporary relationships to sexuality and gender while belonging wholly to Conley’s historical setting, the novel is a compelling invitation to leap into faith in a queer past that remains largely hidden.

Set in colonial America, in the aftermath of the ferocious exercise of condemnation and punishment of the Salem witch trials, Conley’s novel tells the story of a preacher and his family struggling to reconcile the longings in their hearts with the demands of their faith. Nathaniel Whitfield and his wife Catherine have just welcomed a son into the world, but Nathaniel fears the boy may neither be blessed nor a blessing. The source of Nathaniel’s fear is a secret he carries: exactly nine months before Ezekiel was born, inside the very meetinghouse where Nathaniel preaches, Nathaniel consummated a year-long attraction to Arthur Lyman, the village healer.

When Ezekiel is about a year old, his elder sister Sarah wakes one night to find Nathaniel leaving the house with Ezekiel in his arms. Sarah takes her father’s preaching as seriously as her duty to her little brother and so, fearing evil is at work, she follows her father out into the dark forest. There, she’s shocked to see him greet Arthur with tenderness and affection. She hears them agree to stop meeting and to “stop thinking of ourselves as a family.” But witnessing the possible end of Arthur and her father’s relationship isn’t much of a relief, for now her father’s secrets have become Sarah’s burden to bear as well.

The story progresses through multiple viewpoints, each rendered with complexity and compassion. Indeed, one of the great strengths of All the World Beside is what Conley doesn’t have his characters think or feel. They rarely express regret or self-hatred for being how they are, even while acknowledging that everything they have been taught to believe tells them that their desires are wrong. Nathaniel resists Arthur’s attempt to interpret a Bible passage as acknowledging the possibility of love between two men, but only because “it is better to face ourselves with at least some semblance of honesty.” To do otherwise, Nathaniel says, would cheapen their relationship. Ezekiel, as he grows from boy to reluctant man stifled by societal conventions of dress and behavior, nevertheless understands his attraction to the yellow ribbons on his sister’s dress as a recognition of divine beauty made manifest in the world. Conley takes great care to show that although his characters’ lives are suffused with anxiety about punishment and salvation, the mere fact of being different isn’t the true source of their anxiety and nor should it be.

What does trouble Conley’s characters, and what propels the story forward, is their community’s hostility to difference, which drives each of them to keep secrets from the people they love. For Sarah, the isolation that results from keeping her father’s secrets only intensifies as she realizes Ezekiel’s secret and even helps him, one day, to put on one of her dresses. Arthur imagines the possibility of his and Nathaniel’s admitting their feelings to their wives and coming to some arrangement of their households that could allow them to preserve all of the relationships they value. But Arthur feels sure “if he says any of it aloud, none of it will be real.” In keeping their secrets, or trying to, Conley’s characters keep themselves from being known to each other. The resulting sense of alienation and inauthenticity is the true source of any tragedy the characters imagine befalling them, not their desire itself.

By creating characters who are recognizably queer to contemporary readers but who still clearly belong to their colonial time and place Conley achieves a significant success: he smooths the path for imagining queer life in the distant past. In his postscript to the novel, Conley describes the frustration of doing research for his story and encountering either a pointed absence of queerness or downright acrobatic argumentation to avoid acknowledging that it existed. Conley employs fiction to fill in the gaps between what historians are able or willing to relate. While keeping the language of the characters and the narrative appropriate for the historical setting, readers familiar with transgender, gender expansive, and gender nonconforming identities will recognize Ezekiel’s struggle with norms of gender expression in clothing as similar to their own. And although Nathaniel and Arthur lack the vocabulary of homosexuality, bisexuality, and polyamory, their attractions and their imagining of a shared multi-family household are the same feelings and relationship dynamics that people navigate today.

In some places, though, Conley has recreated the historical tone too well, consigning certain elements of his characters’ experiences to summary or backstory. Conley chooses not to fully portray Nathaniel’s preaching, for example, providing instead only the impressions of some members of Nathaniel’s audience. Sarah’s delivery of sermons is handled in the same way. Having lost faith in her father, she strives to take his place as a worthy leader in their community despite the prohibition on women preaching, but her sermons are depicted in summary. The effect is that a critical aspect of both characters’ identity—their faith—is glossed over. In Sarah’s case especially, portraying her preaching only through recollection and summary diminishes the urgency and power of her calling and holds the emotional heart of her story at arm’s length. While this sense of emotional distance is stylistically reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Conley’s clear and acknowledged influence), this choice deprives the love story of some poignancy. By relegating the first year of Nathaniel and Arthur’s relationship to backstory, Conley makes their love for each more an article of faith than a deeply felt truth. Conley might instead have chosen to take advantage of the fact that, unlike Hawthorne, he is writing in a cultural environment that is fairly accepting of portrayals of queer love and put more of Arthur and Nathaniel’s feelings on the page without compromising the novel’s tonal integrity.

Nevertheless, Nathaniel’s longing for a life that would allow his love for Arthur to coexist with his love for his wife and children is forceful and beyond doubt, and Conley doesn’t shy away from posing questions about norms of family structure and personal expression. The result is that All the World Beside stands as a welcome expansion of the stories told in historical fiction, one that roots the queer present in a richer past and encourages hope for the queer future.

Toby LaPlant holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and currently studies screenwriting and fiction at UC Riverside Palm Desert. Toby’s screenplays and stories explore themes of change and queerness, sometimes with a dark or supernatural twist, in settings ranging from academia to the upper Midwest of their childhood. An unashamed re-reader and re-watcher, Toby especially enjoys gothic and literary fiction, character-study films, and brain-bending TV shows. They can usually be found wedged into the best chair in the house beside their fifteen-year-old beagle, Ida.