Ethan is an exceptionally gifted young boy, obsessed with physics and astronomy.
His single mother, Claire, is fiercely protective of her brilliant, vulnerable son. But she can’t shield him for ever from learning the truth about what happened to him when he was a baby; why Mark had to leave them all those years ago.
Now age twelve, Ethan is increasingly curious about his past, especially his father’s absence from his life. When he intercepts a letter to Claire from Mark, he opens a lifetime of feelings that, like gravity, will pull the three together again.
Relativity is a tender and triumphant story about unbreakable bonds, irreversible acts and testing the limits of love and forgiveness.
‘Before you hear any words, you can hear the panic.’
The first chapter is the only chapter in the entire book set in the present tense. I found it quite jarring to start the novel and then have to readjust to the past tense, but it does the job – it makes the opening enigmatic and unforgettable.
Claire has been a single mother for the majority of Ethan’s twelve years, and despite everything she does for him she knows he still wonders about his father. Mark had to leave them when Ethan was a baby, but Claire has concealed the truth from her son, hoping that she’ll be able to save him from more pain.
Mark returns to Sydney after he receives phone call from his brother. His father John is dying of cancer and wants to see him. He’s never had the best relationship with his dad, and he has plenty of reasons not to return to Sydney, but despite all of his apprehensions he gets on a flight, leaving his home in Kalgoorlie. When he sees John, he makes his last request known: he wants to see his grandson before he dies.
Mark contacts Claire, determined not to let his father down again. But Claire is adamant that it’s a bad idea: she doesn’t want Ethan to meet his grandfather when he’s so ill because it’ll cause unnecessary upset.
Ethan has enough going on in his life. He’s being bullied at school, and when one of his ex-friends blames him for his father leaving he lashes out, knocking one of Will’s teeth out and giving him a black eye. The school organises a meeting between Ethan and Claire and Will and his parents, and in this meeting Will’s mother tells Ethan something that Claire has always concealed.
Ethan’s father was sent to prison. He’s a criminal.
Distraught, he runs out of the room, ignoring his mother’s shouts to come back. He runs until he can’t run anymore, and he only stops when he has a seizure, falling to the pavement under the baking Australian sun.
After running tests and observing Ethan, the doctor’s come to the conclusion that the seizure was caused by a scar on his brain which he received from a non-accidental head injury as a baby. Ethan’s confused: non-accidental head injury? What happened to him? But when he asks his mum he finds out that it was also referred to as Shaken Baby Syndrome, and it’s the reason that his father was sent to jail.
With Mark still adamant that he didn’t purposefully harm their baby, Claire is torn. Should she believe him, or should she believe the jury that decided he was guilty?
At points, ‘Relativity’ went completely over my head. Mark and Ethan both love physics, so much so that Ethan’s doctor believes he might be a savant, able to see physics in action in the air around them. I do not have a scientific mind, meaning that there were huge swathes of this book that I was reading, rereading, puzzling over and having to completely ignore because I couldn’t make head nor tail of the explanations or examples given. It doesn’t always add to the story, and sometimes feels as though it’s seguing into another physics-filled section for the sake of it, not to further the plot or develop the characters.
That being said, I think Antonia Hayes’ writing is a dream. It’s beautifully written, with a magical prose that weaves throughout the novel and takes your breath away. Despite the traumatic subject matter it’s an uplifting story: Ethan thrives despite the hurdles he had to overcome early in his life while Claire shows that a single parent can raise a child as wonderfully as anyone else.
I’m not going to give too much away about the ending of the novel, but I can tell you that my favourite chapter was the penultimate chapter, ‘Antimatter’. We jump back in time to the day that Claire finds out she’s pregnant, and follow the couple chronologically through her pregnancy and Ethan’s first four months of life, up until the day that he’s admitted to hospital. I’d been dipping in and out of the book up until that point – it hadn’t really gripped me, though I was enjoying it – but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the page as the events unfolded.
Leaving such a huge chapter until the end of the book was a risky move, but it paid off. There’s so much going on in this story: the will they/won’t they nature of Claire and Mark’s reunion, Ethan’s desperation to build a relationship with his father, and his budding friendship with fellow seizure sufferer Alison. It’s complex but not overwhelming. All of the characters are given their own chance to shine, and they all have such vastly different personalities (with the exception of Ethan and Mark’s common interest in physics) that all of their individual stories are as interesting as the driving narrative of the main plot.
Claire says it best herself:
“Relativity isn’t just about space or time.”
If you have a science brain (unlike me!) you’ll be blown away by this book, but even without that I still have to give it a solid 4 stars. I haven’t read anything like ‘Relativity’ before, and though the subject of Shaken Baby Syndrome is distressing, it was fascinating to read about it from both sides of the argument: the accused and the accuser.
I’m definitely going to keep an eye on Antonia Hayes – if her debut is written this beautifully, her writing is only going to get stronger with every novel she releases.