“Help”, he said. “He’s not breathing.”
Relativity takes, as its starting point, the kind of thing that you never want to experience as a parent: an emergency hospital visit for an infant displaying all the symptoms of shaken baby syndrome. The child’s father, who was alone with him at the time of injury, denies everything, but is arrested, tried, and convicted. He spends years in prison. Meanwhile, the child grows up—but when he’s twelve, he accidentally intercepts a letter from his father to his mother, and the past rushes in to fill the present.
Hayes is coy about what exactly happened when Ethan was a baby until about halfway through the book, which is a wise move. We spend time first getting to know Mark, his father; Claire, his mother; and Ethan himself. Mark is fascinating: probably, fundamentally, a good guy, but immature, prone to temper, and deeply self-important. One of the most painful aspects of the book is the section detailing his youthful relationship with Claire. She’s an aspiring ballet dancer; he’s doing a Ph.D in astrophysics. Her pregnancy is unexpected, but they’re in love and they decide to make the best of things. When the baby is born, though, Mark has a hard time feeling love for him; he’s too preoccupied by the destructive effect a newborn is having on his sleep cycle, his research, and his writing. Claire’s fear that her dancing career is over, meanwhile, is exacerbated by Mark’s apparent indifference to it. In one of their worst fights, he suggests that she should give it up altogether, since it’s not very lucrative or stable employment, and she might never make it big. This is not, needless to say, the behaviour of a supportive spouse.
So the portrayal of the strain on Claire and Mark’s relationship is certainly convincing; what I found difficult to swallow was the standardness of the gender stereotyping. Claire is repeatedly described as being deeply physical and intuitive, “thinking with her body”, while Mark is logical, rational, intellect-driven. It’s a female/male dichotomy that I find knackered, and knackering. Of course the mother is a ballerina, someone who works with their body; of course the father is a physicist, someone for whom the mind is paramount; and of course Claire not only connects instantly with their baby, while Mark struggles, but also gives up her career entirely—out of guilt—after Ethan sustains his injury. It probably frustrates me because of its very realism, because it is still the way that many relationships are framed, but I just kept hoping for something that would challenge these woman-as-nurturer, man-as-reasoner roles, and there was nothing in the book that did.
What does work very well, however, is Hayes’s portrayal of a gifted child. For Ethan can “see” physics: the sound waves left by a lightning strike, the movement of air pressure, the Doppler effect. He’s also simply very bright, with an affinity for mathematics and physics, an excellent memory, and a boundless curiosity. He reads constantly and is forever making connections. Yet he’s still only twelve: a mature twelve-year-old in many ways, but still, as twelve-year-olds do, lacking the fundamental emotional experiences that aid maturity. Hayes nails that curious combination, the brilliance and sensitivity of a child who is, nevertheless, a child. It’s hard to put into words unless you’ve either been that child or been the parent of one, so I’m guessing Hayes is one or both of those things. (The book is based to some extent on her real-life experiences: when she was nineteen, her partner shook their baby, and stood trial for it as a result.)
The bullying Ethan withstands, too, is sickeningly convincing: you hope it’s not written from life, though it probably is. There’s nothing more awful, in middle school, than the betrayal of a former best friend trying to hang with the cool guys, or the nastiness of bullies who use your home life against you, as well as your school persona of Nerd Supreme. To be twelve is to negotiate a bizarre, unreplicable mental space where supernovae and sex are elbowing each other for your attention; where you get boners in the shower but remain fascinated by the minutiae of meteors and the possibility of time travel. Both of those impulses—the sexual and the scholastic—are neatly chronicled in Relativity. It may treat its adult characters in a way that frustrated me, but Ethan is perfectly drawn.
Very luckily, I’ve been able to ask Antonia Hayes some questions about the book and about her writing (courtesy of publicist Grace Vincent), so now it’s over to her:
Ethan is a very convincing portrayal of a gifted child – he still possesses the maturity levels of a twelve-year-old in some ways, even though he is clearly brilliant. What’s your best advice for getting inside the head of a character like that?
While I was writing Ethan’s character, I did quite a bit of research about gifted children and what effects having a preternatural intelligence can have on a child’s mindset. Even though Ethan can understand theoretical physics, it doesn’t mean that he really understands everything – especially adult relationships. At the same time, being brilliant does make Ethan a little too confident in his own abilities and judgement, even outside the world of science. So I really wanted to play with the conflict between intellect and wisdom with his character. Ethan’s intelligence is deep but it’s also quite narrow. Just because he’s a genius doesn’t mean he necessarily has common sense. Gifted kids are still kids – but Ethan doesn’t know how naive he really is.
Claire gives up ballet almost as a way of punishing herself for not being the mother she feels she should have been. Talk to me about careers and motherhood: expectations, reality, unfairness…
There’s a line in the scene about Claire’s childhood training to be a ballet dancer and the pressure her own mother put on her that I think sums up Claire’s feelings about this: “How motherhood could easily annihilate whatever came before it.”
Unfortunately, I think careers (particularly in the arts) and motherhood are both given these unrealistic narratives about complete and utter devotion, but anyone who is completely and utterly devoted to anything at the exclusion of all other things in their life lacks balance. Claire did buy into this specific fiction of martyrdom and surrender with motherhood, perhaps at the expense of her own happiness and fulfilment. With her character, I really wanted to push that motherhood guilt complex. My intention was to show the ways some mothers truly believe they’re doing the best thing by their kids when they make these sacrifices for their children, but they’re actually inflicting a different kind of damage.
My own personal view – as a writer and a mother myself – is that one informs the other. My writing is richer because I’m a parent, but I’m also a better parent because I know how important it is for me to write and pursue my dreams. I am sick of the dialogue around motherhood versus everything because it works on the assumption that motherhood is all-consuming, transactional, selfless and a sacrifice – which is wrong. There’s no conflict or dichotomy; it’s symbiotic and always changing from one phase to the next. It’s the industrial complex of motherhood that’s hostile to art, because it uses guilt and obligation and domesticity as its currency. You can have kids and not suppress who you are; it’s healthier for our kids if we don’t.
Neuroplasticity is well documented, but Ethan’s condition is highly unusual – although the novel eventually reveals that his savantism isn’t what it’s initially believed to be, is such a thing realistically possible?
Yes! Acquired savants are real, although only about 50 of them exist worldwide. One real life case I was particularly interested in was that of Jason Padgett, who became a mathematical and geometry genius after a brain injury.
How did you first become interested in writing this story? What was the initial spark: shaken baby syndrome, gifted children, physics, neuroscience, or something else altogether?
To be honest, it was actually a constellation of all of those things. The initial spark was the character, Ethan – he popped into my head one day, and I knew almost immediately that he loved physics. I’d been thinking of writing about shaken baby syndrome, and his character and interests were my way into telling that story. I’m often asked if Ethan is based on my own son (who is now 14), but he’s actually much more like 12-year-old Antonia. All those elements are different obsessions of mine, that I managed to combine for the novel.
Where do you do most of your writing?
I work at my dining table at home, mostly. Technically this room should be where we eat dinner, but it’s now overrun with books and has become my makeshift office.
Do you have any advice for a debut novelist or for someone who wants to write a novel but is too scared to start? (Asking for a friend…)
I used to be completely terrified of the idea of writing a novel! I think what made me overcome my fear was separating the act of writing itself from what follows it (publication etc). Sitting quietly at my desk, and arranging and rearranging sentences, wasn’t actually a scary thing to do; in fact, it brought me enormous pleasure. So instead of focusing on writing a novel that one day might become a published book (which is an intimidating idea), I focused on writing and after a while, I had a manuscript. Worrying about publication before there’s even a first draft of a manuscript is likely to do anyone’s head in because it creates extra stress you don’t need to trouble yourself with yet. If writing makes you happy, start there. The rest is noise and your friend can worry about that later.
Thanks very much to Grace Vincent for the review copy, and to Antonia Hayes for her incisive and thoughtful answers! Relativity was published in the UK on 7 April.