The novel opens on the lush beauty of a colonial city high in the Andes Mountains in the 1970s with the arrival of the Forders, a diplomatic family assigned to this temporary post in Ecuador. Life goes on merrily, regardless of military coup or Ecuadorian diplomatic tensions, the American Embassy overflowing with the usual parties and pulsing music.
Nine-year-old Alice Forder is stunned by the elaborate beauty of this place: "all that light and color poured into her." On her first day in the Embassy school, Alice is reminded that all who live within these walls are guests in Ecuador, whether with the foreign service, USAID or with the oil companies laying pipeline.
In the mind of a nine-year-old, such a place is larger than life, exotic and impossible to capture for long, everything transitory, the lush beauty hers only for a moment. In her short time in Ecuador, Alice goes on a climbing excursion with a teacher and two other students, learns the pecking order of embassy children and camps in a tent on the beach with her mother. A few weeks later, the Forders receive orders for another post. The beauty of this haunting country is last seen through the window of the airplane taking Alice away.
In 1929, Vi Clarence is building a life in Australia with her husband Alf, fully appreciating their rigorous life, rich with the satisfactions of hard work. Vi is cognizant of the great breadth of this land, for Australia has only been settled for a hundred years. Vi is Alice Forder's grandmother, only now pregnant with her first child, Rosalind: "She felt as if she kept flying free of her tether, or as if the center of things kept shifting"; she has to exert herself to stay fixed in one place. With instantaneous perception, Vi senses that "there was a thin strip of time belonging to her and the rest of it does not."
Even earlier in the unfolding history of the planet, Violet's Scottish grandfather, George, endures the savagery of the Clearances in 1822, homes destroyed to empty the land for sheep, people pushed aside like so much refuse. Ships wander the globe carrying cargoes of people; George is one of these travelers, eventually landing in the Portuguese Azores. There George works in the citrus trade, deeply attuned to the rhythms of the orchards. Soon the groves will be destroyed by parasites and he will move on, but for now George dreams of the island's promise. When inevitable political turmoil breaks out, he understands that now there will be war, there is always war.
Going backwards in time, this elegant, intimate book possesses an air of discovery, whether through the eyes of a child, a pregnant young woman who grows older with her country, or displaced settler in unfamiliar terrain. Like Jodie Shields in The Fig Eater, this author has a talent for the quietly observed moment, the human face of the world. The characters personify each era touched upon in the novel, rapidly altering continents grappling with change, political and economic, alive with the moment, attuned to the beating pulse of history.