Twenty-year-old Jim Saddler lives in Australia in the years leading up to World War I. Spending his days birdwatching, he takes pleasure in identifying the species that fly through the coastal swamplands where he passes his time. One day, Ashley Crowther, a wealthy twenty-three-year-old who has recently returned from living in England, finds Jim watching a bird on his property. Having inherited this land, Ashley takes an interest in Jim’s knowledge. In fact, he’s so compelled by Jim’s “passion” for birdwatching that he offers him a job, saying that he’ll pay him to write a catalog of all the birds he sees on this plot of land, which he and Jim tacitly agree should become a “sanctuary.”
Jim accepts Ashley’s offer and is happy to have a new friend. Shortly after Jim starts his new job, he meets another bird aficionado—a middle-aged woman named Miss Imogen Harcourt. One day, he sees her taking a picture of a sandpiper while he himself looks at the same bird through his binoculars. Wanting to meet her, Jim goes to her cottage and looks at her pictures, and the two become fast friends. Miss Harcourt, for her part, is impressed by Jim’s intensity and devotion to birds.
Jim enjoys this blissful period of getting paid to do what he loves. However, this fulfilling life takes on a new quality when news of World War I finally makes its way to Australia. While on a short trip into Brisbane, Jim feels as if something in the air has changed. Everybody around him rejoices with a kind of ragged excitement, and he notices young men celebrating the news of the war in bars; they have just signed up for the military and are eager to become part of the action. Jim spends a restless night in a boarding house and returns to the sanctuary, where he resumes his peaceful existence, though now he senses that the war will inevitably take him away.
As young Australians pour into Europe, Jim puts off joining the military. Nonetheless, he can’t help but recognize that the world is changing. Because of this, he eventually signs up to go to war, thinking that if he doesn’t, he’ll “never understand” why everything around him is so different.
In the military Jim is grouped with a number of Australians. He develops a fondness for Clancy Parkett, a jokester and trouble-maker who likes to tell stories about his days as a philanderer. He also befriends Bobby Cleese, an Australian bee-keeper who likes to talk about fishing in Deception Bay—something Jim finds soothing and familiar. He also finds reassurance in the birds that fly overhead, since they connect him to his life back home and remind him that there are still natural cycles undisturbed by the war.
The night before marching to the front of the line, Clancy convinces Jim to sneak out to a makeshift bar in a nearby village. As the two friends set off, a young soldier named Eric Sawney runs after them asks if he can join. An orphan who barely seems old enough to be a soldier, Eric latched onto Clancy early on and has since followed him wherever he goes.
At the bar, Clancy throws back hard liquor and tells a long, rambling story. Jim thinks at first that this story is about another one of Clancy’s escapades as a flirtatious young man, but he realizes by the end that his friend is telling a more serious tale about a specific woman whom he must love, and who had some connection to Clancy’s decision to join the army.
When his infantry reaches the frontline, Jim discovers how awful it is to be in the most dangerous place on the battlefield. The worst part isn’t that the Germans are so close, but that the trenches are full of water and rats and the stench of dead bodies, since corpses have been poorly buried within the very confines of the dugout itself. Then, of course, there’s the violence. Although Jim never actually sees any German soldiers, he’s aware of their presence because of their sniper fire. One of Jim’s fellow infantrymen dares to look over the parapet to catch a glimpse of what’s beyond the trenches, and has his face blown off.
Even when the infantry isn’t in the frontline, violence is everywhere. One day, while unloading ammunition from a truck and waiting for Clancy to bring him water, Jim is suddenly thrown through the air by an explosion. When he hits the ground he hears Eric—who was sitting nearby—screaming. Looking over, he sees that the boy’s legs have been blown off. Before he can help, he realizes that he’s covered in blood. Unable to find Clancy, the horrific truth dawns on him: he is covered in the only thing that is left of his friend, who exploded into a bloody mist that sprayed over his body.
Thankfully, Eric survives long enough to make it to the hospital. Several days later, Jim visits him and finds it difficult to avoid looking at the space under the sheets where the boys legs should be. He tells Eric that everything will be all right, but the boy challenges this notion, pointing out that he’s an orphan with nobody to look after him.
At one point during his service, Jim is sent to gather firewood in a desolate forest and sees an old man digging in the ground. At first, he thinks the man must be digging a grave, but he soon sees that he’s actually planting a garden. And although he feels pessimistic and hopeless—believing the world is full of violence and ugliness—this moment makes him think of home and of Imogen Harcourt, ultimately giving him a moment of bliss and hope for the future.
Ashley Crowther is also at war in Europe, though he joined the military as an officer. He did this not long after Jim left Australia, waiting only to make sure that his new wife gave birth to a healthy child. Every once in a while, his and Jim’s paths will overlap, and the old friends will share a silent moment. Now, Ashley finds himself looking at a man with a garden hoe in a desolate area—the same man, perhaps, who gave Jim a sense of hope.
Later, Jim has an out-of-body experience as he and his company rush onto the battlefield and run toward enemy lines. He feels as if he’s a bird flying above the entire scene, and then he realizes he’s on the ground staring up at the sky. He feels his body dissolving in a strange way, before blinking and finding himself under a canvas tent. A number of other pale soldiers are crowded inside while a man sorts them out one at a time on a butcher block. Each person, he sees, has a tag affixed to his uniform. Turning to his side, he’s surprised to find Ashely Crowther, who tells him to stand up and that he knows the way out.
Outside, Ashley leads Jim to place in the woods where the old man planted the garden. A number of people are digging in the ground, and Jim leaves Ashley’s side to join them in the task. Clancy appears beside Jim, urging him on. When Jim says he thought Clancy “just disappeared into thin air,” Clancy simply replies, “No, not air, mate. Earth.” He then tells Jim that they must dig “through to the other side.” As Jim begins to dig, he realizes that Ashley is nowhere to be found, but he concentrates on the task at hand, feeling that “this steady digging into the earth” might be “what hands were intended for,” like “wings were meant for flying over the curve of the planet to another season.”
Ashley’s wife tells Miss Harcourt that Jim has died, informing her that Ashley himself was wounded in the same battle but managed to survive. These days, Miss Harcourt likes to go to the beach and watch the waves breaking on the sand. While doing this one morning, she catches sight of a man surfing. Having never seen anybody on a surfboard, she finds herself exhilarated by the newness of the sport. However, this newness also pains her, since it reminds her that the past is gone, and this makes her think sorrowfully about how much she misses Jim. Nonetheless, she can’t resist watching the surfer, deciding that it is an “eager turning, for a moment, to the future.”