It must be difficult write a novel about the harming of a child and the ensuing fallout without resorting to broad black-and-white depiction of good and evil. After all, who’d dare imply sympathy for the perpetrator? We are wired – rightfully so, perhaps – to immediately condemn those accused of inflicting violence on the defenceless. We do not seek explanation or apology. We are not interested in extenuating factors. We seek only retribution. It’s only in the aftermath, when cooler heads prevail, that we recognise the shades of grey that permeate our lives and our decisions; when that immediate and vociferous moral outrage fades, and we allow our thoughts to drift darkly, to contemplate how close we, too, have come to straying over that line. Most of us have the ability to negate this disposition; to stop before it’s too late. But imagination is a powerful tool, and my nightmares are comprised of these premonitions; what if my frustrations boiled over? What if I lashed out? It would take only a nanosecond of rage to blank out my inhibitions and do something unthinkable. My sleep isn’t plagued by demonic ghouls; I’m haunted by actions I trust I’d never take.
Relativity deals with the consequences of a man’s mistake and ultimate failure; or at least his assumed mistake, for Hayes shrouds the truth until late in her novel. Found guilty in court of leaving his infant son, Ethan, with a case of Shaken Baby Syndrome, more than a decade has passed – and the ripples are still being felt by all involved. Ethan’s mother, Claire, was hardened by the experience; she’s fiercely protective of her son, and is burdened with guilt. Her ex-husband, Mark – who relocated to Western Australia following his release from goal – resurfaces in Sydney to bury his father, and considers the repercussions of reconciliation with his wife, and reconnecting with his son. Ethan, meanwhile, is a kind-hearted, single-minded child, hyper-intelligent; obsessed with physics, capable of diluting scientific theories in a manner I can only dream of. More importantly, he is beginning to question his origin; his father is shrouded in mystery, a nameless, ethereal figure. When he intercepts a letter from his father to his mother, he sets off a chain of events, forcing Mark and Claire into confronting the past.
This is an enthralling, emotionally complex novel, steeped in physics imagery and metaphor. It works beautifully, for the most part, although it eventually outlives its welcome; the coda, particularly, felt like an unnecessary underlining of Relativity’s theme. But by then the novel had won me over. I was invested in the lives of Ethan, Claire and Mark; caught between wanting them to unite, and adamant they are fundamentally broken as a family unit.
Great works of fiction make us pause and reflect; their characters and moments have the ability to dredge up memories and fears, and touch us in remarkable ways. Relativity is unquestionably a great work of fiction – perhaps the finest I’ve had the pleasure of reading this year. Its characters are rich, its prose is graceful. It is simply superb.
Imprint: Viking Australia
Publisher: Penguin Books Australia
Publish Date: 24-Jun-2015
Country of Publication: Australia