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Relativity - Antonia Hayes

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'Relativity is wonderful, a beautifully written, heartbreaking novel that I feel certain will find the huge audience it deserves.' SJ Watson, author of Before I Go to Sleep and Second Life

Ethan is a bright young boy obsessed with physics and astronomy who lives with his mother, Claire. Claire has been a wonderful parent to Ethan, but he's becoming increasingly curious about his father's absence in his life, wanting to fill in the gaps.

Claire's life is centred on Ethan; she is fiercely protective of her talented, vulnerable son, and of her own feelings. When Ethan falls ill, tied to a tragic event from when he was a baby, Claire's tightly held world is split open.

On the other side of the country, Mark is trying to forget about the events that tore his family apart. Then a sudden and unexpected call home forces him to confront his past, and the hole in his life that was once filled with his wife Claire and his son Ethan.

When Ethan secretly intercepts a letter from Mark to Claire, he unleashes long-suppressed forces that – like gravity – pull the three together again, testing the limits of love and forgiveness.

Heart-wrenching, absorbing and magical, Relativity is an irresistible novel about science, love, unbreakable bonds and irreversible acts.

Read Caroline Baum's Review

I love writers - especially debut writers - who have a big bold ambition to do something different. Their aspiration in aiming high is so noble and thrilling for the readers who go on the journey with them. That's what Antonia Hayes does in Relativity, a novel underscored by a love of science that manages to weave together a simple story about a broken family and an unusually bright boy with big ideas about time, space, matter and the cosmos.

Twelve year old Ethan is an exceptionally gifted boy obsessed with physics and astronomy who gets teased at school where he's called Stephen Hawking (and before you sigh and go oh please not another naif somewhere on the autism spectrum, I promise, this is not that).

He lives with his mother Claire, a retired ballet dancer whose career never quite reached its peak (I feel duty bound to warn you that these are the weakest sections of the book, but that should not put you off). His father, Mark, is absent but exerts a magnetic pull on his mind. Eventually the three are brought together and while it's not as dramatic as an asteroid collision, it has profound consequences for all three. You could even say that their personal planets are realigned. (Hayes' use of scientific terms as chapter headings adds a nice touch, and makes you consider the twin meanings of terms like gravity.)

Perhaps the most fascinating and mysterious science explored in Relativity is the still undiscovered terrain of the brain, as uncharted as some parts of the galaxy. What makes Ethan such a unique and gifted child? Can he really see sound?

Above all, this is a charming, gentle, sometimes sentimental story about the value of proof, the changing nature of what we know and the power of forgiveness. I think readers will not only take Ethan to their hearts but find themselves looking up at the stars more frequently with wonder. And that's no bad thing.

About the Author

Antonia Hayes is a Sydney-based writer and has written for publications all over the world, including the Sydney Morning Herald, the Age, and Vingt Paris. She is co-director of the National Young Writers' Festival, and merchandising and marketing manager at Copia Australia. She attended the first Faber Academy novel writing course in London in 2009 (with S.J. Watson!), lived in Paris for four years, and has previously worked as a book publicist for Random House Australia. She is working on her first novel.

Industry Reviews

'Relativity is wonderful, a beautifully written, heartbreaking novel that I feel certain will find the huge audience it deserves.' SJ Watson, author of Before I Go to Sleep and Second Life. 'Relativity is a transcendental book that manages to stay grounded and true in its warmth and pathos. With fully realised characters and a gripping storyline that unfolds into a carefully constructed equation of familial love, I could not put it down.' Alice Pung, author of Unpolished Gem and Laurinda



Very happy with the service offered by Bpoktopia. Enjoy reading the Reviews.

Ex Hobart, TasMania AU


Captivating story


Great holiday read easy to follow and hard to put down enjoyed the twists and turns as each persons story unravelled




4.5 2




Before you hear any words, you can hear the panic.

It surfaces as an irregularity of breath, a strain of vocal cords, a cry, a gasp. Panic exists on a frequency entirely its own. Air into air, particle by particle, panic vibrates through the elastic atmosphere faster than the speed of sound. It's the most sudden and terrible thing, piercing the calm and propelling us towards the worst places. Before the words come out the anxiety is there, roaring on the other side of silence. Before your brain can register what you're being told, you know that something is wrong. And before you can respond it's already too late. Because once you've heard those words, an event is set in motion and everything will change.

'Help,' he said. 'He's not breathing.'



Ethan took his mum by the hand and led her into the tunnel. Graffiti covered the walls – veins of green and silver – with patterns and symbols sprayed into stories like sacred paintings in a cave. Cryptic characters spelled strange words; the mismatched letters reminded Ethan of formulas and equations. Aerosol fumes lingered, but nobody else was there.

'Come on, Mum!' The tunnel threw Ethan's voice further ahead. 'Hurry up! We'll miss it.'

They emerged in the darkness, rushing under the brick archway of the golden viaducts and into Jubilee Park. Along the footpath by the mangrove habitat, past the oval and cricket pavilion, over the mossy bridge, they ran towards Blackwattle Bay. It was low tide: empty stormwater drains, shallow creek, a bank of exposed mud where water lapped at the shoreline walls. Across the bay was the Anzac Bridge, its cables stretching from the pylons like strings of a harp. Street lamps dotted along the bridge reflected in the dark water, staining it with orange stripes.

Ethan frowned. 'There's too much light. We should've gone to the country.'

His mum gave him a weary smile. 'You're lucky we're even here; it's two o'clock in the morning. You have school tomorrow, I have work. We live in the middle of the city. This'll do.'

She spread out a blanket and they sat by the promenade. Both of them were wearing their pyjamas. The park was silent and empty; the air smelled like wet grass and salt. Ethan concentrated, letting his eyes adjust to the dark. It was a cloudless night and the moon hadn't risen yet. Optimal conditions for seeing the meteor shower, and tonight was its peak. Behind them, the glare of Sydney's skyline turned the horizon amber. He worried about light pollution, that the glowing metallic city would stifle the secrets in the sky.

'There!' Ethan pointed. 'See the row of three stars? That's Orion's belt. And there's Rigel, the constellation's brightest star. That means the Orionid meteor shower is happening over here. Look!'

Mum kept her eyes on him. 'How long until we go back to bed?'

'Tonight there'll be somewhere between twenty-five and fifty meteoroids per hour. They're actually dust from Halley's comet entering our atmosphere. Air friction makes them glow with heat and then swoosh! They vaporise.'

His mum lay down on her back. 'So I guess we wait then?'

'Yeah, we wait.' Ethan nestled in beside her, resting his head on her arm. He looked up at the northwest corner of the sky and connected the dots of the constellation Orion. One of its bright stars – Betelgeuse, 
a red supergiant – floated near the belt. Red supergiants were the lar­gest stars in the universe and Betelgeuse was so big that if it replaced the sun, it would spread all the way out to Jupiter.

Ethan squinted, focusing on the vague pink spot. Betelgeuse was a dying star. Eventually, it would run out of fuel and collapse under its own weight. He imagined the red star exploding, the cosmic boom as it went supernova, shockwaves sweeping across the galaxy. Violent plasma bursting into the brightest ball of light. He could almost see it burning. But Betelgeuse wasn't going to explode for hundreds of thousands of years, maybe not even a million.

In a million years, Ethan thought, these constellations will break apart. People would need to make new maps and tell new myths for the changing patterns in the sky. Orion would be a different shape; the Southern Cross might become a square. Ethan watched the stars move, like a movie on a massive screen. He saw the cinematic trajectories of darkening dwarfs and brightening giants. Everything was slipping and unthreading, disappearing and beginning. Up in the celestial jungle, there were no static stars.

In two billion years, the galaxy Andromeda would be so close to the Milky Way that every night sky would light up like fireworks. And in four billion years, the two galaxies would spin closer and closer together and finally collide, swirling and twisting, giving birth to new stars. Becoming one galactic knot. But all that was so far away. There were so many things in the distant future that Ethan would never see.

He dragged his knees up to his chest. 'Mum, do you ever think about the future?'

'Right now I'm thinking about what we're going to eat for dinner tomorrow night.'

'No, not like that. I mean The Future. Like in a million years. Or a billion.'

Mum smiled. 'Not very often, sweetheart. I won't be alive in a billion years.'

Ethan turned to face his mum, propping himself up on his elbows. 'But I don't want you to die. What if I sent you away on a spaceship travelling at nearly the speed of light? Because of time dilation, it'd only feel like one year for you. But for me it would be twenty. So when you got back to Earth, we'd almost be the same age.'

'I wouldn't want to spend twenty years away from you, though.'

'Neither.' Ethan scratched his nose. 'Okay, what if we were both on the spaceship together? We could travel close to the speed of light or through the deepest parts of the fabric of space-time where gravity makes it warp. By the time we got back home, millions of years would've passed. But we'd still be alive. We could see Betelgeuse go supernova, and the Milky Way collide with Andromeda. Maybe if we just fly around the universe for the rest of eternity, then we never have to die. Or maybe we could go faster than the speed of light. There must be some loophole in theoretical physics that makes living forever possible.'

His mum studied his face, the hypnotised way people stared at paintings or sunsets. 'Ethan, sometimes I have no idea where you came from.'

'Yeah, you do. I came from inside you.'

'As usual, you're right,' she said, rolling onto her stomach.

'Mum, want to know something crazy? Statistically, the probability that I exist is basically zero. Did you know you were born with two million eggs? But when you were thirty you'd lost 90 per cent of them, and by the time you turn forty you'll only have about fifty thousand left. So the chance that I was born was 0.008 per cent. I'm one in two million eggs, plus I'm one in two hundred and fifty million sperm. That's approximately how many sperm are in each male ejaculation.'

Mum looked confused. 'How do you know all this?'

'We're doing sex ed at school. Mr Thompson even made us watch a video of a real birth. I saw an actual vagina and everything.' Ethan paused. 'Mum, do you think they ever miss me?'


'The other eggs. My brothers and sisters inside your ovaries. So far, I'm the only one who's successfully made it out.'

'Oh,' she said. 'Well, the other eggs would all be your sisters. Only men have the Y chromosome that makes baby boys. At the moment, all the eggs are girls.'

'So I used to be a girl?'

'You also used to be an egg.'

'It must be scary for them,' Ethan said. 'Sending one egg down the fallopian tube every month, like a sacrifice. It's like The Hunger Games in there. And you only have a few more years left before the whole system shuts down. What if the other eggs run out of time? Mum, what happens if all my sisters die before they get to exist?'

Her hand found his. 'Ethan, do you have survivor's guilt?'

'No,' he said, in a clipped voice. She was making fun of him. But he'd been one of those eggs once, made of the same proteins, and they were still stuck. Trapped in an eternal moment before life could begin. Ethan couldn't save his sisters, couldn't let them know he didn't mean to abandon them. He hunched his shoulders and sighed.

'What's wrong?'

He wasn't sure. He didn't want her to have another baby. And besides, to make another baby she'd need a man to contribute another set of chromosomes. Mum wasn't a Komodo dragon; she couldn't reproduce by herself. But as Ethan thought of his thousands of sisters – squashed together in his mum's ovaries, waiting – he suddenly felt very alone.

He rubbed his eye. 'Nothing. I'm fine.'

'You're tired.' Mum kissed him on the forehead. 'And I'm freezing.'

'But the meteor shower!'

'Ten more minutes. That's it.'

Ethan leaned forward and focused on Orion; it was high above the horizon now. The night sky was a gauze of symmetries and spirals, an ocean of darkness and light. Ultraviolet and infrared, filled with invisible radiation and empty vacuums. Ethan felt like he could split the yawning universe open with his eyes and see its boundless dimensions, look beyond the blueprint of space and time. He'd always had an aptitude for spotting patterns, finding the geometry in chaos.

His mum looked out at the water; maybe she didn't care about the meteor shower. She pulled the sleeves of her jumper over her hands and shivered. Ethan gave her a hug to help her molecules expand. In the dark, her pale skin and fair hair seemed blue. When Ethan looked at his mum, he saw another universe – a world intact, of soothing shapes and soft textures, of beautiful angles and the warmest light. His universe.

Above them, three hundred sextillion stars rearranged themselves. Expanding, tightening, collapsing – new stars were born and old stars died. Quasars and pulsars, novae and nebulas, clusters of galaxies woven together like a spider web. Ethan watched the marbled universe dance over his head, ever-shifting and spinning towards its ultimate fate.

A tiny flicker of light shot across the sky.


The meteoroid vaporised. Flashing and fading in the same instant, like a phosphorescent memory.

Ethan blinked. It was already gone. 'I think I saw one.'

'A shooting star?'

'Meteoroid,' he said, correcting her. 'It was really fast.'

'Did you make a wish?'

'Yeah. But if I tell you, it won't come true.'

Mum ruffled his hair. 'Come on, pumpkin. Let's go home.'


Claire watched Ethan gaze at the stars. Wriggling with excitement, mouth slightly open, head tilted back as he scanned the sky. His spellbound expression made it impossible not to smile. She loved her son in unexpected ways, with the same sort of visceral obsession that one might have for the idiosyncrasies of a lover. Claire loved his physicality – the way Ethan laughed so hard he farted, how he picked at the dry scabs on his knees, the weight of his musty head resting on her shoulder as they sat together on buses or trains. She enjoyed that silent intimacy most of all.

Ethan shuffled closer and pressed his face against her arm. He wasn't self-conscious about adoring his mother yet, still needed her affection. Claire knew these easy days were numbered. Adolescence was sneaking into her son – faint whiffs of body odour, scatterings of hair growing on the back of his neck and down his legs, a tiny line of blackheads forming on his nose.

'Mum,' he said, 'look!'

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 Sydney 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.

Their wedding was fourteen years ago now, just family and a few close friends at the registry. Claire wore a vintage lace dress that had belonged to her mother. Instead of a reception, they invited friends to dinner at their favourite Indian restaurant and everyone drank champagne and chatted over butter chicken and rogan josh. Toasts were made to the happy couple and Claire and Mark held hands under the table, looking over at each other occasionally to exchange a smile. She got a bit drunk, spilled curry on her dress. It stained the lace and she 
remembered running her finger over the orange mark when – years later – she threw the dress in the bin.

After dinner, Mark took Claire to Centennial Park. They lay together on the grass, looking up at the sky. It was a warm Sydney evening, the middle of January, and the balmy breeze cloaked Claire's skin. She closed her eyes and sniffed the summer air, so thick with humidity that she could reach out and touch the night. The grass was freshly mowed and a chorus of cicadas chirped behind the trees.

'Are you happy?' Mark's fingers moved down her arm, his breath on her face.

Claire kept her eyes closed but smiled. It was unusual for Mark to ask for reassurance and it made her feel drunk with confidence. 
'Why wouldn't I be?'

'This probably wasn't the wedding you wanted. You deserved a big ceremony, hundreds of guests, a church, a gift registry. You must be disappointed.'

She sat up and looked at him. Blades of grass were stuck in his black hair, and she picked them out with her fingers, noticing how thick and full his eyelashes were. It was peculiar to feel as though she owned him now, that she could say he was hers, that they were married. But he should've known that she didn't care about the wedding. They were young and in love. The thing that mattered most of all was Mark.

'I'm not disappointed,' Claire said. 'Today was perfect.'

Mark nodded but seemed unconvinced. Bats flapped overhead, flying into the park to feed on the nectar of the paperbark and gum trees. She knew him well enough to suspect that maybe it was Mark who was disappointed, who wanted things to be grander.

'I have something for you,' he said.

She hadn't bought him anything. Sometimes Mark made her feel naive, like she'd lived her life in a bubble, oblivious to the rest of the world. 'You didn't have to,' Claire insisted. 'I have enough things.'

Mark stood up and offered his hand. She pulled herself upright and brushed the grass off her dress.

He kissed the back of her neck and pointed at the sky. 'There. It's for you.'

Claire looked up. 'I don't understand.'

Mark linked his fingers around hers. 'Can you see that star, right here?'

She stared out to beyond where her fingertip grazed the sky. 'Maybe,' she said, closing one eye so the stars came into focus.

'It's yours. I bought it for you.'

'You bought me a star?' She gave him a sceptical look.

'Because you're my light,' he said. 'My constant.'

Even though it was a hot night, Mark's lips against her earlobe made her shiver.

Much later, Claire removed all traces of Mark: letters, clothes, books, the wedding dress. She erased him completely. But Claire couldn't throw away a star. She prayed that somehow, up in space, her star would extinguish and disappear. This star didn't, though. It remained steadfast in the sky, and the further away Mark felt, the brighter the star seemed to shine.

After the meteor shower, Claire peeked through Ethan's bedroom door. When he was a baby, she'd stand over his cot and listen to him breathe, soothed by the perfect function of his lungs and steady heartbeat. Now Ethan was twelve years old and Claire still watched him sleep, still sending herself into a panic if she couldn't see his ribs move. She'd survey the landscape of his face – the smiles and frowns of his dreams, the shadow his long eyelashes cast on his cheeks, the crease that ran through the middle of his nose. His long limbs were often a shock, caught in his rumpled bedding. Her son was always taller and older than she thought he was in her head. Claire could never picture him properly.

But Ethan gave the vagueness of her life definition. And although Claire complained about his clothes and Lego scattered about the house, she needed them there to punctuate her existence. He made their house a home. They were similar in many ways, softly spoken and prone to dreaming, half-listening to conversations and lost inside their heads. Echoes of her bone structure bloomed in the lines and angles of her son's face. But something about Ethan was from another planet.

Even when he was a baby, Claire knew he was unique. He saw the world with different eyes. Sensitive to light, he'd become entranced by prisms and patterns. Ethan lost hours watching shadows bend and flex, shrinking and elongating against the carpets and walls. Amazing – that didn't seem like normal behaviour for a baby – but alarming too.

Everyone was worried. Ethan didn't meet his developmental milestones; it was frightening how late he was to walk and talk. He didn't coo and babble, or respond to his name. Claire took him to specialists, tested his hearing, read him stories, sang him songs. She did everything in her power to draw her son out from his interior world and into hers. But Ethan was stuck, caught in the net of delay.

Doctors warned her that he might never speak, but Claire refused to believe them. It took almost a year of speech therapy but Ethan's first word was 'Mama'. Behind those quiet eyes, she saw flashes of something brilliant hiding there. His second word was 'moon'.

This uneven brilliance was coupled with a dark intensity. Quickly agitated, Ethan often threw toys across the room; his wild temper was easily broken. Claire saw her son get frustrated with his homework, angry with himself, to a point where he'd detonate and explode. When Ethan was like this, she couldn't be near him. It was too familiar. During those crackling moments when her son lost his cool, Claire locked herself in the bathroom and burst into tears.

That wasn't who she wanted to be. She often felt like an amateur at motherhood, even though it was a job she'd had for twelve years. Unconditional love and quiet affection both came easily to her. Leadership and being stern did not. She wanted to be Ethan's ally, preferred to make him happy than focus on the prosaic drills of discipline. At times, Claire did let things slip. The duties of parenting – jumping from tutor to coach, manager, cook, seamstress – needed an ensemble cast and she was just a one-woman show.

Ethan spotted her standing in the doorway. 'Mum, can you stay here until I fall asleep?'

'Sure.' Claire lay down beside him. She shouldn't have let him go out past midnight; he'd be tired for school tomorrow. She succumbed to his strange requests too much.

Outside, the moon finally rose: a slim crescent like cupped hands waiting to catch a star. As her son settled into sleep, he automatically shifted his solid body closer to hers – that undeniable umbilical pull. He offered his cheek for a kiss. Claire pressed her lips to the back of his head, taking in his doughy smell.

'Goodnight,' Ethan whispered.

'Sleep tight.'

'Don't let the bed bugs bite.' He paused for a moment. 'Mum, did you know that bed bugs have the geometry of an ovoid? Their bodies are dorsoventrally flattened. That means their vertical plane is flat like a leaf, so it's easier for them to hide in carpets and beds.'

Claire laughed. 'Ethan, go to sleep.'

ISBN: 9780670078585
ISBN-10: 0670078581
Audience: General
Format: Paperback
Language: English
Number Of Pages: 368
Published: 24th June 2015
Country of Publication: AU
Dimensions (cm): 23.3 x 15.5  x 2.7
Weight (kg): 0.45
Edition Number: 1