We’re all accustomed by now to the protagonist with the odd way of thinking: Don Tillman in Graeme Simsion’s The Rosie Project, Christopher Boone in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, and those hilarious scientists in The Big Bang Theory. In Relativity, Ethan Forsythe is 12 and lives with his mother, former ballerina Claire, in Sydney, and there’s something very special about his brain. Ethan is obsessed with physics and the workings of the universe, his hero is Stephen Hawking and he doesn’t fit in at school. Ethan is also curious about his father: he has no memory of him and Claire won’t talk.
Before long, Ethan’s father, Mark, shows up from Western Australia where he’s been living. Mark’s own father is dying and wants to see Ethan again after all these years, so Mark leaves a note for Claire under her door. She doesn’t want anything to do with him at first, for good reason, but the note is intercepted by Ethan, who writes back, sending Mark years of Father’s Day cards. Can the power of forgiveness overcome years of distrust? After all: “They belonged to each other – they should have been a unit – instead they were shards of broken china that couldn’t be stuck back into a vase. Their family was ruined, wrecked by cracks and faults, shattered by its own entropy. It was already too late; they were irreparable.” Or were they?
The “moral dilemma” genre has its own conventions and Hayes’s plot is high melodrama, which isn’t a problem in itself. More worrying is the trowel-thick imagery and metaphor. Relativity’s chapters are titled “Motion”, “Time”, “Energy”, “Black Holes” etc. Mark is a theoretical physicist. The heavy-handedness extends to the smallest act, in case the reader should forget for a moment what the image system of the novel is, or what each character is feeling at any time. This is Mark descending in a lift: “Then they were free-falling back to earth, plummeting to the ground floor. G-force emptied his lungs, pulled blood away from his head. With the indistinguishable forces of the equivalence principle – gravity felt like acceleration, acceleration like gravity – Mark momentarily forgot that whatever he felt, looking down the building’s atrium, also felt exactly like pain.”
Ethan is not autistic, though. We’re told that often. In fact, we’re told everything, multiple times. Ethan has a genius IQ – except for those times required by the plot when he behaves incredibly stupidly – yet every tricky neurobiological or scientific concept is explained to him in basic language.
“Just under your forehead,” Dr Saunders continued, “is the frontal lobe. Basically where our personality lives. The frontal lobe controls motor function, problem solving, spontaneity, memory, language and our emotions. Back here, at the top of our head, is the parietal lobe. This area integrates sensory information from various parts of the body and helps us navigate. Are you following?”
Or here, Ethan himself, explaining something to his best friend, epilepsy-patient Alison:
“Alison, I told you this already. Wormholes let you go backwards in time, and enough energy will bend space so they open. There’s a rule in physics that says you can borrow a huge amount of energy – as long as you pay it back quickly – it’s called the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle.”
“Like a loan? How will you pay it back?”
“In particles, of course. With negative energy.”
Alison gave a hesitant nod. “Ethan, I know you have a special gift and everything. You definitely know what you’re talking about. But are you sure this’ll work?”
What does work is the way Hayes conducts the readers’ emotions. This is a skill regrettably few novelists have, and in Relativity, Hayes has ratcheted up the intensity: sick and endangered children; dying, regretful old people; evil bullies and defenceless victims; nightmarish injustices and unconditional love. It all combines to make the reader care, and the climax of Relativity left even my cynical heart pounding. Every bookstore has shelves of novels filled with gorgeous sentences and nuanced characters that nonetheless leave readers cold. All those writers could learn something from Hayes.
Then there’s Hayes’s imagining of the exact peculiarity of Ethan’s brain. It’s wonderful and beyond inventive – if one of the precise pleasures of fiction is a glimpse at someone else’s thought processes, this is indeed a marvel. But how does a writer who can conceive this foreign interiority with such intelligence also give us histrionic paragraphs such as:
He didn’t remember. Claire did though. She was enveloped in her grief, shaped by it, and needed to keep her son safe from its disfiguring effects. But secrets were like scars: they faded and softened, but as much as you tried to camouflage them, they didn’t completely disappear. Damage had lasting impact. His scar had been resurrected.
Now the only constants he believed in were mathematical, scientific: the gravitational constant G, Planck’s constant h, the electric constant ke, and the elementary charge e. These were, for Mark, the only things that he could rely on to be universally true. Nothing else was truly constant – not family, not people, not love. Not even himself.
Buggered if I know.
Parts of Relativity are wonderful and it’s this that makes the rest of it so galling. It’s difficult to escape the feeling that a talent such as Hayes would not have been cast adrift with a novel like this in Ye Olden Days of publishing. She would have worked an apprenticeship, encouraged by her editors to build her career as a storyteller while caring about the tools at her disposal.
Still, Relativity will likely sell many copies and make many readers happy, and these are not trivial things. Hayes is also brave; she allows compassion for characters who do appalling things. Perhaps it is only reviewers and literature nerds who hope for that elusive blend of art, respect, and story from emerging writers. With the “moral dilemma”, overwrought sentiments and populist gleam on display here, she may well become our very own Jodi Picoult. LS
Viking, 368pp, $32.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 27, 2015 as "Antonia Hayes, Relativity". Subscribe here.