One family traced from the 1860s to the 1980s, beginning with Cornelius Laffey, an Irish-born journalist. Wresting his kin from the easy living of 19th century Sydney, he takes them to northern Queensland where thousands of hopefuls are digging for gold in the mud. The family confronts the horror of aboriginal dispossession, and Cornelius is sacked for reporting the slaughter. The cycles of generations turn, one over the other.
In her flat above Drylands' newsagency, Janet Deakin is writing a book for the world's last reader. Little has changed her in 50 years, except for the coming of cable TV. Loneliness is almost a religion, and still everyone knows your business. But the town is being outmanoeuvered by drought and begins to empty, pouring itself out like water into sand.
Leverson, the narrator at the centre of these stories, calls himself a "people freak". Seduced by north Queensland's sultry beauty and unique strangeness, he is as fascinated by the invading hordes of misfits from the south as by the old established Queenslanders.