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THERE’S A SCENE IN RELATIVITY, Antonia Hayes’ poignant novel, in which 12-year-old Ethan spies a tattoo – E=mc2 – on the arm of Mark, his newly discovered father.

517hRY1swWL._SX300_BO1,204,203,200_‘What’s that?’ he asks. ‘What does it stand for?’ And after further probing, Mark reluctantly admits that he’d had it tattooed when Ethan was born. ‘It’s us,’ he says. ‘You were the product of us … E for Ethan, M for Mark, C for Claire. She was my constant. … Not any more.’

Told from the perspective of Ethan, his mother, Claire, and father, Mark, Relativity focuses on the fallout of one very significant, violent event that occurs when Ethan is a baby and leads to the fracturing of their family.

At the age of four months, Ethan suddenly stops breathing and is rushed to hospital, his injuries apparently consistent with Shaken Baby Syndrome (SBS), that is, as Ethan’s doctor explains to Claire, being shaken with the force equivalent to an adult ‘falling off an eight-storey building’. Mark, who was looking after the baby at the time, is accused of the crime and, much to his and Claire’s horror, is convicted and sentenced to prison.

Twelve years on, Claire and Ethan live in Sydney, Mark, in exile, in Western Australia, his bright future as a theoretical physicist ruined. Against all the odds, Ethan is now a brilliant child–man, seemingly fascinated by the stars and living and breathing physics. He shares a very special bond with his mother, but despite their closeness, their relationship is, we discover, based on secrets and lies – at least lies of omission. Claire has never told Ethan about his injuries or his father’s role in them. Events, however, conspire to bring Mark back to Sydney to see his estranged father, John. When Mark’s father asks to see Ethan before he dies, Mark gets back in touch with Claire and the secrets and lies come tumbling out.

In many ways, Ethan is a normal child, desperately curious about the father about whom his mother never talks. When he discovers by accident that Mark is in Sydney, he sends him the seven Father’s Day cards that he’s made for him over the years and Mark, who has largely blocked out the idea of Ethan, has distanced himself from him, not just literally but emotionally, is forced to deal with the reality of his son; even more so when Ethan calls him.

Without a doubt, Relativity is a beautifully written book. Hayes deals with a subject extremely close to her heart – indeed, it is based on her own story – with a lightness of touch that makes this often heartbreaking novel an utter joy, at times, to read. The book raises a number of questions, not least how much of what we are or do is shaped by our parents’ actions and how much is the result of genetic identity. Both Mark and Claire are clearly affected by their own parents’ behaviours towards them – but how much that feeds into the event that causes Ethan’s injuries as a baby is questionable.

Claire acknowledges that Mark is ‘whittled down by his father –minimised to a shell’ and that speaking about his family makes his voice ‘tremble’, even though she herself sees John as ‘benign’ and feels guilt for excluding him from Ethan’s life. John later admits to Mark, though, that he was a bully, whereas Claire’s father, in contrast, defines love for her as a ‘verb, not just a noun’. Mark’s mother was beloved to him and yet Claire’s mother, who she loves, pushes her into ballet, only to abandon her. ‘Parenting a shining star meant being overshadowed. Without realising, Claire had eclipsed her mother but her mother couldn’t live without the light.’

How far Claire and Mark’s experiences influence them is debatable, but when Ethan explodes after a bout of bullying and ends up beating his best friend, it leads Claire to question if Ethan has inherited his father’s ‘violence’.

Throughout the book, Claire’s struggle with the reality of Mark’s guilt and her flickering hope that Ethan might have been misdiagnosed surfaces. Certainly Mark denies his guilt, arguing that ‘Shaken Baby Syndrome’ has been discredited and that Ethan’s injuries could have been the result of something else. And when Ethan’s IQ is revealed at genius level, and his doctor claims that he is an ‘acquired savant’, this appears to alter the perception of what happened to Ethan, almost making the violence of the event acceptable, momentarily at least, in that the very thing that could have completely devastated Ethan’s life has instead now seemingly given him an extraordinary gift, a rare and bright intelligence.

Relativity is a challenging book, one that raises many questions – about the importance of honesty and the often debilitating impact of keeping secrets, about whether there can ever be any reconciliation where violence is concerned and about the nature of love and family. It also highlights a very important subject, Shaken Baby Syndrome, or Non-Accidental Head Injury (NAHI) as it’s now known, one that remains very contentious and Hayes touches on this in the book whenever the validity of Ethan’s diagnosis is raised or Mark’s character as ‘the perpetrator of violence’ questioned.

In an interview in 2015, Hayes commented, ‘Everyone is a human and no one should be dehumanised, even people that have done monstrous things. They’re still not monsters.’ She said people are complicated and we can be ‘good people who do bad things’. Or to use Ethan’s words, ‘You can be a good person and still fuck up.’

There are books that make us pause, make us think, make us look at how our actions, our choices can impact on not just our own lives, but on those of the people around us: Relativity is one such book. It’ll make you weep, for sure, but it’ll also make you laugh, such is the finesse of Hayes as a writer.

I hope you read it. I really do. It’s a book that deserves to be read.

 

Relativity by Antonia Hayes • Published by Corsair • 7 April 2016 hardback • £14.99 • ISBN: 978-1-4721-5168-1

Antonia Hayes’ website: www.antoniahayes.com
Antonia Hayes on Twitter: @antoniahayes

 

This review is published as part of the Corsair blog tour. For the other participants and reviews, please see the following poster:

Relativity blog tour

Image and text credits: Images courtesy of Grace Vincent, publicity manager at Little, Brown. Quotation text: Copyright © 2015 by Antonia Hayes. Interview 2015 with Richard Fidler, ABC Australia.

 

Also of interest: ‘A.D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple – a tale of friendship, rivalry and regret’; ‘An Alaskan Epic – Rosamund Lupton’s The Quality of Silence; ‘The beauty of Sara Taylor’s The Shore, a breathtaking debut’, ‘“Amethyst and flowers on the table”, the beauty of Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell, a review‘.

 

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