Arriving in Capricornia (a fictional name for the Northern Territory) in 1904 with his brother Oscar, Mark Shillingworth soon becomes part of the flotsam and jetsam of Port Zodiac (Darwin) society. Dismissed from the public service for drunkenness, Mark forms a brief relationship with an Aboriginal woman and fathers a son, whom he deserts and who acquires the name of Naw-Nim (no-name). After killing a Chinese shopkeeper, Norman disappears from view until the second half of the novel.
Oscar, the respectable contrast to Mark, marries and tries to establish himself on a Capricornian cattle station, Red Ochre, but is deserted by his wife and eventually returns for a time to Batman (Melbourne), accompanied by his daughter Marigold and foster son Norman, who has been sent to him after Mark's desertion.
Oscar rejects the plea of a former employee, Peter Differ, to see to the welfare of his daughter Constance; Constance Differ is placed under the 'protection' of Humboldt Lace, a Protector of Aborigines, who seduces her and then marries her off to another man of Aboriginal descent. Forced into prostitution, Constance is dying of consumption when discovered by a railway fitter, Tim O'Cannon, who will take care of Constance's daughter, Tocky, until his own death in a train accident.
Hearing news in 1928 of an economic boom in Capricornia, Oscar returns to his station, where he is joined by Marigold and Norman, who has grown to manhood believing himself to be the son of a Javanese princess and a solider killed in the First World War. Soon after, he discovers his mother was an Aboriginal woman, and meets his father, with whom he will not reconcile until later in the novel. Norman then goes on a series of journeys to discover his true, Aboriginal self. On the second of these journeys, he meets and wanders in the wilderness with Tocky, who has escaped from the mission station to which she was sent after the death of O'Cannon. During this passage, she kills a man in self-defense, which leads to Norman's being accused of murder, at the same time his father is prosecuted for the death of the Chinese shopkeeper. At the end of the novel they are both acquitted, Heather and Mark are married, and Norman returns to Red Ochre, where he finds the body of Tocky and their child in a water tank in which she had taken refuge from the authorities. (Source: Oxford Companion to Australian Literature)