Matilda and her two sisters are growing up in Palm Beach on the outskirts of Sydney in the 1950s. Their story is set against a backdrop of the Cold War. World events are paralleled by the tragedies and struggles that emerge in Matilda’s own family.
Strange men move in next door and Matilda thinks they are spies. Her sister, Frances, acts as if she is happy but she isn’t. She is worried about the disappearance of a friend and miserable at school. Elizabeth, the oldest of the sisters, is refusing to go to school, and the doctor says she has had a nervous breakdown.
The grown-ups are facing problems too. The girls’ father is often away at sea and when he is home he is unable to forget the horrors of fighting in World War II. To make matters worse, his brother always seems to visit when he is away. Now, the girls’ father has disappeared and no one knows what has happened to him.
There are two mysteries in the novel: the first concerns the strange activities of the secretive new neighbours; and the second involves a peculiar incident that occurred when the family went to the Basin for a picnic. This incident seems to have fractured the family and left the girls anxious and uncomprehending. Will the girls ever unravel the truth of what happened and will their father return home safely?
This is an atmospheric and evocative story that works on many different levels. It is extremely subtle in terms of the plot and emotions, making the reader think more deeply about the narrative and the ideas it conveys. This means it is more demanding than many novels for the age range but also more rewarding, and its accomplished and elegant style will engross the reader.