Twelve-year-old Ethan isn’t simply obsessed with the cosmos and physics, he understands complex ideas far beyond his age. Inevitably, the other kids at school think he’s a weirdo. Not only is he prime target for the school bully, Daniel Anderson, his best friend Will has recently switched sides. When Will tells Daniel, ‘Ethan’s such a freak, even his dad left him right after he was born’, Ethan beats his best friend up, triggering a series of events that will change his life and uncover long held secrets.
Claire is Ethan’s mum, single since his dad, Mark, left when Ethan was still a baby. She gave up her dream of becoming a professional ballet dancer to parent Ethan. Devoted to her son, she indulges his interest in astronomy, taking him out late at night to the park to watch a meteoroid shower.
But on nights like this, when the dark sky was crisp and cloudless, Claire hated looking at the stars. After sunset, she’d taught herself to keep her eyes fixed on the ground. Star visibility wasn’t great in Sidney but sometimes they came out to shine, reminding the city they were still there. That night they were sharp, flaring, and Claire looked up. She still knew where to find her star – it was always there. It never seemed to wander the night sky.
Unbeknownst to Claire, Mark’s on his way back to Sidney; his father’s dying, his brother breaking a nine-year silence to call him and tell him he should come. Mark’s father’s dying wish is to see his grandson, the boy that neither he nor Mark have seen since he was a few months old.
Hayes uses this set-up to explore two major themes: shaken baby syndrome and gender.
Ethan suffered a brain injury at four-months old. His symptoms were consistent with shaken baby syndrome but Mark has always maintained his innocence. Now new research suggests that diagnoses of SBS probably missed an underlying condition which was more likely to have caused brain damage in babies. However, twelve-years after the initial injury, Ethan has new symptoms.
Gender roles are questioned throughout the novel. Hayes repeatedly questions society’s views of mothers and the expectations placed on them – to curtail their own ambitions, to be the main carer, to maintain an angelic disposition, and, even when those expectations are met, for it still not to be enough if you’re a single mother.
Helen looked at her husband with a pinched expression. ‘I read a recent study that said children from single-parent families are responsible for the epidemic of violence in schools. He’s wild. He’s clearly not getting enough discipline at home.’
‘Not to mention,’ Helen continued, ‘that it’s a well-known fact kids raised by single mothers are twice as likely to have behavioural issues than those born into traditional two-parent families.’
Relativity is an engaging read which considers a subject I’ve not seen in fiction before, certainly not in a way which considers the extended aftermath of the event. Hayes uses physics to pose questions without answers and to explore the messiness of existence. She doesn’t allow any easy solutions and this is a real strength of the novel. That so much of what is covered here exists in a moral grey area would make it a perfect read for book groups.
Thanks to Corsair for the review copy.