A title that at first seems obscure takes on relevance as the novel progresses, an Englishman’s journey from one continent to another, past deeds haunting his new beginning. When middle-aged Charles Redbourne begs his elderly wealthy uncle’s aid in leaving Victorian England, Charles has not communicated with his uncle for decades.
But Redbourne’s proclivity for inappropriate relationships with vulnerable young men has made his current situation untenable, the local villagers outraged by the recent suicide of a particular young man. Charles’s uncle begrudgingly concedes to his nephew’s importuning, sending Charles to Australia and the household of a wealthy landowner. Redbourne hopes to start anew, pursuing his scientific interest, documenting various species of birds as a way of legitimizing his existence. In truth, Redbourne is guilty, his accusers accurately targeting this gentleman’s misbehavior.
Arriving in Australia near Sydney, Charles discovers a new playground for his scientific interests and an entirely different set of characters: Edward Vane; his daughter Eleanor; a local family, the Merivales; and a hard-bitten hunter-guide, Bullen. Vane organizes a number of local specimen expeditions with Charles and Bullen, the pair to make a longer trip into the interior at a later date.
From the first, Charles is curious, even disturbed by the fractious relationship between father and daughter, Eleanor’s antipathy towards her father impossible to ignore. Attracted to the young woman in spite of his proclivity for those of the same sex, Charles begins a mild flirtation with Eleanor, certainly a friendship. Leaving father and daughter’s rancor behind, Redbourne’s trip into the interior with Bullen becomes a crucible in which all Charles’s fears are realized, the demons of the past returning as the superstitions of the present imbue everything with threat.
Bullen is grotesque, an ignorant bully who ignores tradition at his own peril, disrespecting the Aborigine culture in pursuit of slaughtering unusual species for profit. Ignoring the advice of their guide, Billy Preece, Bullen meets a fitting end, a temporizing Charles barely surviving this trek cum nightmare that nearly costs his life. Clinging to Eleanor upon his return, Charles grasps an emotional panacea for his troubled soul only to realize that he has projected his own needs onto another.
Peopled with unlikable, morally bankrupt and desperate characters, Redbourne’s journey, rifling paradise along with his own broken psyche, is a disturbing rout of Victorian mores and pretensions, the past once more imprisoned in a foolish union that bodes ill for the future.