Enzo Secchi, harbourmaster for Massawa, Eritrea's main port, is a loyal Italian colonial servant. He takes pride in running the docks, enjoys the occasional drink with his gregarious friend Salvatore, colonel of the local Italian garrison, and listens to Caruso in his spare time. But he is lonely and when Salvatore suggests he find an Eritrean housekeeper to cook, clean - and maybe share his bed - Enzo takes the plunge and advertises. Salvatore's own tastes run to the young and nubile, but Enzo surprises himself by choosing Aatifa, a sharp-tongued woman in her 30s with a complicated family life, who takes the job as a last resort. What neither of them had counted on was falling in love.
But it is 1935, Fascism is on the rise, and Mussolini does not intend Eritrea to remain a backwater for long. Italian forces bent on invading Ethiopia begin arriving at the port. And with them come new laws - including one forbidding 'Relationships of a Conjugal Nature' with Eritrean women . . .
Meanwhile, Salvatore finds himself at the head of the invasion force bound for Ethiopia. Gone are the glory days of garrison life; it is a bitter campaign, laying bare all the brutality of Italian colonial ambition. Its consequences for Salvatore, and for Enzo and Aatifa as they contrive to hide their relationship in plain sight, will change all three lives for ever.