I am not a physicist, but I don’t need to be in order to enjoy reading Relativity by Antonia Hayes. This beautiful debut novel tells the story of twelve-year-old Ethan Forsythe. A boy with the extraordinary gift of seeing physics.
Walking away from this book my first thought was: “Wow, Ethan can grow up to be a much more well-adjusted version of Sheldon Cooper!” Ethan is a likable character who loves his mother, but relating him to Sheldon would take away the compassion and empathy that Ethan feels throughout the novel. Yes, he has a gift, an intricate understands of physics, but he is also sensitive and kind and we’re on his side from the very beginning.
From the first page, Ethan is a remarkable character who’s curiosity and intelligence is easy to relate to. His fascination with physics and the stars is endearing but makes him a target amongst his classmates. Soon it becomes clear that Ethan is much more than just a gifted child and that family secrets have shaped his life.
I was nervous going into Relativity because I was concerned about how the science would be incorporated into the book. My understanding of physics comes from one college course and I was worried that some of what Ethan would know would be over my head, but Hayes handles the task extremely well.
Hayes strikes a balance between explaining the science both artfully, for example when Ethan narrates what he is seeing, and being really involved and knowledgeable. There are a couple of scenes in particular that I could see being in an episode of Doctor Who; the intelligent genius explaining the physics behind his project to his friend Alison. On those pages, his best friend’s comments made me smile.
But this book isn’t just about the physics. Throughout the book, Hayes uses these fundamental scientific forces to explore unbreakable bonds between family members. The novel is told from each family member’s point of view, presenting unique voices and perspectives, a choice that serves the subject matter of the book really well.
From page one, the reader knows that something life-changing has happened and with relatable characters mixed with true-to-life circumstances, you travel with them until the very end. You’re not entirely sure what’s split this family apart, but as you move forward it takes shape. Your perception isn’t fully formed until the novel’s final chapters, but the novel never seems to drag on.
The last thing that Hayes does really well is give the reader a sense of place. Hayes is an Australian writer and sets this novel in Sydney. It could almost be any city, but then you get little notes like it being warm in December and the foliage in the park. These are done so subtly that you don’t even realize the details are there unless you are reading closely. I can vividly see the scenes Hayes describes as much as I care about the characters.
And if you read it, come back and tell me what you think!