The novel, set in Rhodesia in the late 1970s, is based on one of the most horrific incidents during the war of liberation there. The scene is Karima village in the north-east of the country where the people are caught up in a violent and merciless struggle between the Rhodesian authorities and the guerilla fighters. Theirs is a world of fear and suspicion in which children and adults struggle to make sense of what's happening. Their perspective is contrasted with that of the District Commissioner and his family, as well as of the local clergyman, and officers and men in the Rhodesian army. These conflicting perspectives finally confront one another one night in an attack on the village.