Setting this book in the mid-1800's on the nearly uninhabited north coast of Australia provides David Malouf with plenty of leeway to explore some of his favorite themes. The book begins with the return to "civilization" of an English cabinboy who had gone overboard twelve years prior and had been nursed by aborigines. With the north coast now being settled by people fearful of the shy aborigines, who they think may be a threat to them, all the characters are frightened by their isolation: the settlers from life in England, from the more populated centers of Australia, from the aborigines, sometimes from each other, and certainly from the strange young cabinboy who has made contact with them; the former cabinboy from his "countrymen," from the society of the sailors he served, from the aborigines who nursed him, and from the new society now being established on the north coast.
All have differing views of reality, different values, and different understandings of what is important. The reader is forced to question what constitutes "civilization" and to ponder the extent to which we can have a "real" world without recognizing the importance of the supernatural and respecting those people who allow it to inform and transform their lives. As in "The Conversations at Curlow Creek" and in "Harland's Half Acre," Malouf's main character must decide whether he will live in civilization as he has found it. Mary Whipple