"Relativity" Antonia Hayes
Twelve year old 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 forever from learning the truth about what happened to him when he was a baby; why Mark, Ethan's father, had to leave them all those years ago. Ethan is now becoming increasingly more curious about his past, especially his father's absence in his life and when he intercepts a letter to Claire from Mark, he opens a lifetime of feelings that, like gravity, will pull the three together again.
Told from the alternating points of view of Ethan and each of his parents, Relativity is a poetic and soul-searching exploration of unbreakable bonds, irreversible acts, the limits of science, and the magnitude of love.
I first read about this book on social media but as Hayes is Australian I didn't think I'd be able to get hold of a copy so I was absolutely over the moon when I received one from Clara Diaz at Little, Brown. It must have been all that wishing upon a star and the forces of the cosmos working in my favour!
Who knew I would fall in love with a book about astrophysics and physics? Certainly not my forte ever, or something I've ever really been able to get to grips with but oh my, in this book Hayes makes science full of colour, shape, vitality and creativity. Her ability to write so lyrically and poetically about forces, meteorology, mathematics and the brain is impressive and makes this book unputdownable. In the way that Mark Haddon also achieved with his character with autism, Hayes has portrayed the mind of a young child -whose genius is also sometimes his disability -with authenticity and created a character that we immediately care about, engage with and become very fond of. This sensitive balance between Ethan's narrative, his issues, the story lines of Claire and Mark as they navigate their way through relationships, parenthood and their own emotional journeys and the delicate writing style has resulted in a book which I felt was fresh, original and very readable.
From the beginning we can see that Ethan is different. He sees things in a different way to everyone else. His obsession with stars and astronomy affects the way he perceives the world around him.
"The constellation of Ethan. Made up of his symptoms, his ancient stars: subdural haematoma, haemorrhages, cerebal oedema. They made a picture, told a story. His story."
"He saw radar pulses and radio waves, spirals and loops unfurling into time and space......He saw the hydrogen and helium that make up incandescent stars, whirling distant pinwheel galaxies.....all the ripples of a universe, spinning in a galactic soup around him."
Hayes imagery is thoughtful and highly imaginative. It continues to be throughout the entire novel. The use of colour also helps Hayes to convey Ethan's sense of the world and I thought his understanding of his diagnosis was simple, naive and innocent:
"sitting on the spectrum made Ethan think of a row of chairs running along a rainbow."
And a good contrast to the rather dampening Doctor's definition that sometimes an extraordinary skill is "compensation for an extraordinary deficiency."
Ethan's love for his mother is clear and their relationship is captured from the way he first describes her:
"When Ethan looked at his mum, he saw another universe, a world intact, of soothing shapes and soft textures, of beautiful angles and the warmest light. His universe."
They have a very close bond and Claire is fiercely loyal about protecting Ethan. She understands the dangerous implications of being "gifted" and she too is carrying several deep secrets not only about Ethan's past and the estrangement with his father, but also complex issues about her own childhood and relationship with her parents. There were numerous lines that I highlighted while reading and Claire's more blunt and pragmatic observations strike a contrast against Ethan's happy oblivion. They also ensure a balance within the pace, structure and tone of the novel, but a subtle reference or inference to astrology is never far away.....
"Motherhood could easily annihilate whatever came before it........Parenting a shining star meant being overshadowed.....[she had] eclipsed her mother but her mother couldn't live without the light."
There are plenty of moments when you just want to hover over a line or sentence for a while and absorb the weight of the words and the gravity of the idea that Hayes is probing. This is a ponderous book but at the same time, moves on at a reasonable pace, propelled by the domestic drama and human interest provided by Claire and Mark.
Some of the themes and ideas I would love to spend more time reflecting on were the idea of dreams, memory, second chances, mistakes, the past and gravity. There are some beautiful conversations between the characters and Claire and Mark's understanding that although their relationship is troubled, they remain each other's constant. Hayes implies that there is a gravitational pull between people, a traumatic past can not be revisited or undone as time travel is a physical impossibility, but the past can become a stronger foundation for a more successful future.
"The most difficult steps in the choreography were always the most memorable of the dance."
Hayes did something for me which no teacher or scientist has managed before and that was to show physics as something beautiful and intriguing. As one of the characters points out, It isn't the certainty of physics that makes it interesting but the "discovery.....the beauty of the unknown." This novel is all about possibility, making the impossible happen, realignment, rediscovery, forgiveness and new beginnings. All things which happen in fiction and in science. Ethan uses science to help him look for a better future and to give him hope.
"Physics was full of paradoxes and duality."
"Theories were disproven all the time. There were no universal truths, just views of the world yet to be proven wrong."
It's too long to quote but there was some lovely passages about Gravity towards the end of the book. There were some great phrases about all it does, from making tears run down our faces to keeping our feet on the ground, from attraction to a bond that binds us together.
The final thing to mention are the chapter headings. They are all key words from physics - time, space, momentum, acceleration, inertia, magnetism ....... This yet again reinforces the key metaphors and themes that Hayes explores within science, within fiction and within a family. I really enjoyed this story and really enjoyed the writing style. It is Hayes first novel and I am seriously excited about looking out for this writer in the future!
If you enjoyed "A Boy Made of Blocks" then you will enjoy this book. I thought there were similarities between the father / son relationship in this novel.
"Relativity" is published on 17th January by Little,Brown.
For more recommendations and reviews you can find me on Twitter @katherinesunde3 (bibliomaniacuk)