"Do you know, Quinn, there isn't even a word for a parent who has lost a child? ... It is unspeakable: Bereft." - Quinn's mother attempting to describe a mother's feelings concerning the death of her child. (page 144)
In 1919 Quinn Walker returns to Flint in outback New South Wales after serving in the army during World War I. But he cannot go home. In 1909 he fled from the district when, as a sixteen year old, he found the body of his twelve year old sister, Sarah, after she had been murdered by two men. Both his father and uncle threatened to hang Quinn if they ever found him. Yet he returns and watches from the hills the family farmhouse where his mother is dying from the influenza epidemic that affected many parts of Australia after the war. When he is sure his mother is alone Quinn visits her and tries to explain his ten year absence.
To some extent, due to lack of rain, the countryside is dry and almost barren, not dissimilar to part of the countryside destroyed by battles in Europe. While deciding what to do next he meets twelve year old Sadie, an orphan who is waiting for her brother to return from the war. Quinn is haunted by memories of war and it is Sadie who helps him when
his dreams become too real. In many respects Sadie is a mystery, not
just in her use of magic but in her knowledge of Quinn's past. They both fear Quinn's uncle and know that he will eventually come and look for them. Together they hide and forage and wait until they both know that they will have to move on.
This novel portrays the lasting physical and mental affects of war on those who served, the loss felt by family members left at home, the affects of epidemics on families and the reactions and fear of members of small, isolated rural communities when faced with violent crime, the appearance of strangers and events that cannot be explained.