One ship lands and another flounders offshore. Their fates are entwined, the passengers of the ships and those waiting on the English coast for the storm to abate. There is only one inn in Wherrytown, so all survivors are housed together, sharing cramped quarters.
Ayer Smith stands out against the rougher denizens; as gentry, he chooses a couple emigrating to Canada for his companions. Smith is a partner of Hector Smith and Co., who buys kelp ashes from the inhabitants of nearby Dry Marston for use in their soap manufacture.
An officious busybody typical of his class and education, Ayer is here to inform the agent and kelpers that the company will no longer need their services. He plans to rectify the situation with a personal visit to each family. Besides being a Skeptic, Smith is an Amender, the belief that for every act of evil, there is a corrective act of charity. A bachelor and a virgin, Smith is so out of touch with reality that he cannot identify the native's natural pragmatism. In such misplaced attentions lies chaos.
Smith is particularly interested in an African slave, Otto, who is saved from the wreck, and the newlywed wife who shares Ayer's private quarters with her husband. It is through Smith's meddling that Otto is released, a slave whose powers will grow to mythical proportions. As for Captain Comstock, of the Belle, "hard winds, bad luck, a bar of sand had beached his ship. His masts were down, the cattle lost, the African set loose." Snow has begun to fall and "every half-wit in the land" is staying at the only inn.
The cast of characters is Dickensian, connected to the land from which they eke their livings, some well, most meagerly: Walter Howells, an agent who has his fingerprints on every transaction that occurs in Wherrytown ("Everyone would earn a decent crust. High tide, high times!”); mother and daughter Rosie and Miggy Bowe, kelpers soon to be out of work, although Miggy has set her sights on one of the American sailors, Ralph Parkiss, and is courted by a local, Palmer Dolly; and the innkeeper, the ample Mrs. Yapp.
Referred to as "old spindleshanks," Aymer realizes his flaws, determined to be more circumspect, less interfering: "He would be reckless in his reticence, a pleasing paradox." Thanks to his priggish interference, a series of events is set in motion, events that would serve as high comedy were they not so tragic. The passengers of the recovered ship sail off to what they hope will be a happy future, Ayer left watching. With one final, clumsy action, he takes his leave, none the wiser for his adventures.
Crace has written a comedy of errors with Ayer Smith the central player, a dangerous fool under the best of circumstances confronted by the real world of Neo-Industrial England, where life is lived on the edge of the ocean in all its random brutality. Blissfully unaware, Ayer is adamant, "There was a calm to maintain between oneself and one's behavior."