THE SUBSTANCE OF ALL THINGS by Sam Harris deftly weaves back and forth between two story lines — a psychologist’s troubled childhood and his unease in late middle age about losing “passion” for his profession. Theo Dalton is a wounded healer who still suffers the mental and physical scars of a brutal family car crash at age six. The accident maimed his hands, crippled his father physically and emotionally, and caused his mother to die after emergency birth of his sister, Lily.
Touching and being touched are difficult for Theo in adulthood. They are impossible for his newest patient, a younger woman who avoids all physical contact. Pondering the roots of his isolation as he tries to understand the source of his patient’s troubles, Theo reflects on learning how to metaphorically “take my painful memories and place them in a box.” His patient, who is never named, has a memory box of her own filled with emotionally freighted trinkets from her father. The patient’s trouble with touch is related to sexual abuse. Theo’s aversion is connected to his religious experiences in Oklahoma’s Bible Belt at age twelve when he discovered that his claw-like hands could spontaneously heal people. Theo’s community disrespected the impoverished Daltons and shunned them when scared by Theo’s gift. The Dalton’s downward spiral eventually led to Theo and Lily being coerced by their greedy and falsely pious Auntie Li into joining a corrupt evangelist’s roadshow to earn money for their family. It almost killed Theo, who uploaded the pain and illness of those who clamored for his touch.
Award-winning actor and singer/songwriter Sam Harris enlivens his fine debut novel with strong supporting characters like the villainous Auntie Li (she enjoys discarding six-year-old Lily’s beloved, beat-up doll). The rollicking relationship between Theo and his childhood friend, Henry, is one of the book’s great pleasures. Henry, who helps Theo sneak a cow into church, is tiny but big in spirit. Frank is another childhood friend, but an adult. He’s the community pariah rumored to have murdered a fellow soldier. Frank learns about people by quietly observing them instead of listening to gossip. He’s the first to recognize Theo’s gift. Finally, the most unexpected friend appears in Theo’s adult life — his skittish patient who repeatedly distances herself yet provokes him into positive change like cleaning and repainting what she calls his “dump” of an office. When she draws close enough to accept a hug, it rejuvenates his belief in being a healer. He reflects that “grief and mourning and anger are…the ignition of change.” They are also the ignition of a powerful story.
THE SUBSTANCE OF ALL THINGS by Sam Harris is a fine debut novel and a rapid read with strong characters and insights into the therapeutic process.
~Alicia Rudnicki for IndieReader