The novel opens as Queenie, one of the protagonists, visits the British Empire Exhibition as a young girl. She goes with her parents, who run a butchery together, and is chaperoned by two of their employees, Emily and Graham. In the exhibit on African tribal life, all three see black people for the first time, and Graham loudly announces that they’re not civilized and “can’t understand English.” Hearing this, one of the actors shakes Queenie’s hand bravely and speaks in perfect English. At the end of the day, Queenie looks down on the show from a view point with her father, who tells her that she has “the whole world at your feet.”
Years later, in 1948, Hortense Joseph arrives in England from Jamaica and rings the bell of a tall London house. The house belongs to Queenie’s husband, Bernard, but he’s never returned from the war, so Queenie lives there alone. Hortense’s own husband, Gilbert, has rented a room there. Hortense is furious that Gilbert forgot to pick her up at the dock, and that the apartment he’s found is tiny and cramped.
Hortense relates her childhood in Kingstown. Born to an upper-class Jamaican bureaucrat and a maid, she was given to her father’s cousins to raise, in hopes that their wealth and her light skin would provide her a good life. Their household is sterile and unloving; her adoptive parents, Mr. Philip and Miss Ma, are dogmatically religious and scold her frequently. Her only friends are their son, Michael, and her maternal grandmother, Miss Jewel, who works as a servant in the house. Hortense attends school until she’s fifteen, after which she begins to teach at a school run by two American missionaries, Charles and Stella Ryder. One day, a hurricane strikes the town, forcing Hortense and Mrs. Ryder to take shelter in the school. Michael braves the elements to find them, but it becomes apparent that he’s in love with Mrs. Ryder, not Hortense. Hortense runs out of the school to find the townspeople gathered around Mr. Ryder, who has crashed his car into a tree and died. Enraged, she reveals that Michael and Mrs. Ryder are in the school alone together. In the ensuing scandal, Michael leaves to join the Royal Air Force (RAF) in England.
Hortense leaves home for the first time to attend a teaching college. There, she makes friends with the older and more stylish Celia Langley. The war ends, and Hortense gets to know Celia’s new boyfriend, a former RAF airman named Gilbert with plans to immigrate to England with Celia. Jealous at being left behind, Hortense tells Gilbert that if he marries her, she’ll lend him money for passage to England. Gilbert accepts even though he doesn’t love her.
The novel then explains Gilbert’s backstory. As a young man eager for adventure, he joins the RAF and is sent to Virginia, where he’s shocked by the segregation and casual racism he encounters. Afterwards, he’s deployed to Yorkshire, where he works as a driver and coal shifter. While British civilians sometimes make racist comments, the atmosphere is more open than in America. Gilbert is astonished that while he spent his upbringing learning about British geography and culture, the average Briton knows nothing about Jamaica and assumes it’s an African country.
Walking in a meadow one day, Gilbert meets an older, mentally ill man and guides him home. The man is Arthur Bligh, Queenie’s father-in-law; Queenie is unusually polite to Gilbert, thanking him and giving him tea. A few days later, he and Queenie take Arthur to a film, but the usher informs Gilbert that he has to sit in the back of the movie house in order to cater to American tastes. Indignant, Queenie and Gilbert protest, and soon all the American GIs and black soldiers are heckling each other, with the civilians caught in the middle. The fight spills into the street, and eventually military police arrive to quell it; one of them accidentally shoots Arthur and kills him.
The novel turns to Queenie’s backstory. She’s born in a small town in northern England. Her family life revolves around the hard work of running a butchery, but they’re better off than most people in the town, who work in the mines. Revolted by the family business, Queenie goes to live with her Aunt Dorothy, who owns a candy shop in London. There, she meets Bernard Bligh; they don’t have much chemistry, but she knows he can provide a stable life, so she marries him.
Soon, the Blitz begins. People from bombed-out lower-class neighborhoods are resettled on Queenie’s street, and Queenie’s neighbors and even her own husband resent the incursion. Disgusted by their pettiness, Queenie volunteers to shelter refugees in their own house and even gets a job with a relief organization. Even though the work is hard, it gives her a newfound sense of purpose. Bernard is angry that she’s building a life away from him. Eventually, Bernard joins the RAF and is deployed overseas.
Once Bernard leaves, Queenie is responsible for his father, Arthur; the old man doesn’t speak, but he’s companionable and patient, and the two get along well. One day, a friend from the rest center convinces Queenie to let three RAF soldiers stay at her house during their leave. She’s captivated by a Jamaican officer named Michael Roberts, who’s charismatic and kind to Arthur. The night before he leaves, they sleep together. He leaves his wallet behind with pictures of his family. In the morning, Queenie rushes to the station to return it to him, but gets caught in a bombing and never finds him.
One day, Queenie offers to show Hortense around the local shops. Queenie assumes that Hortense has never seen stores or even bread before. Meanwhile, Hortense is astounded that English women wear dowdy clothes that would be unacceptable in Jamaica, and that the stores are untidy and sometimes dirty. When they return home, Queenie finds the long-lost Bernard standing on the doorstep.
In a flashback, Bernard describes his experiences as an RAF soldier deployed in India. When he arrives, he’s astounded at the chaotic multilingual atmosphere of Bombay, which he interprets as evidence of Indian inferiority. He finally reaches the base where he’s stationed, a primitive construction under constant threat of Japanese bombing. Older than most of the soldiers and unaccustomed to manual labor, he initially feels out of place but befriends a veteran, Maxi, who makes him feel the war is exciting. Fairly soon, the Japanese surrender, but while some troops are sent home, Bernard’s regiment moves towards Burma. Some of the men mount a strike to demand demobilization, but as punishment they’re all sent to Calcutta, which has been ravaged by Hindu-Muslim conflict following the British decision to partition India. With his comrades, Bernard sees streets filled with bodies and narrowly escapes being killed by mobs. Incensed at their continued presence in India, Maxi calls a clandestine meeting to plan another strike; Bernard, who favors following the rules, leaves huffily. Shortly afterwards, the barracks catches fire and most of the men, including Maxi, die.
Afterward, Bernard is court-martialed for deserting guard duty to fight the fire and losing his weapon. Eventually, he’s released from jail and demobilized. Waiting for his ship in Calcutta, he visits a brothel and has sex with an extremely young prostitute. On the ship, he develops a lump on his groin and become convinced he’s contracted syphilis. Too ashamed to return to Queenie, he hides out in Brighton and works as a waiter for two years. One day, when he finally visits the doctor, he is told that if he had syphilis he would certainly be dead by now. Relieved, he returns home to Queenie.
Bernard is enraged to find that Queenie has accepted black tenants in his absence. For her part, Queenie isn’t sure if she wants to resume her marriage. The next day, Bernard announces that they should evict their tenants and move to the suburbs. Queenie feels smothered by her husband’s assumption that after two years of absence she’ll immediately return to obeying him.
One day, Gilbert and Hortense return home to find Bernard snooping in their room, and Gilbert starts to fight with him. Queenie comes upstairs to intervene but doubles over in pain. Demanding Hortense help her, she retreats downstairs and confesses she’s about to give birth. While the men, clueless as to what’s going on, pound on the door, Queenie gives birth without issue and Hortense cleans off the little boy. The baby must be illegitimate, since Bernard has been away the preceding months, but Hortense is horrified to see that he’s also black. She assumes Gilbert is the father.
Later, Queenie explains the situation to Bernard. During Bernard’s postwar absence, she received a sudden visit from Michael, the soldier she slept with earlier. They spent three days together before he returned to Jamaica, after which she realized she was pregnant. For a while, she hoped for a miscarriage, but eventually she grew to love and want the baby. After she finishes the story, Bernard wordlessly walks out.
One of the other tenants, Winston, has just bought a house, which he wants to fix up and rent out as lodgings. He offers to let the Josephs live there if they help fix it up. Gilbert accepts thankfully, but he’s worried that Hortense won’t like the run-down house. However, when he shows it to her, she’s uncharacteristically happy and optimistic about their ability to fix it up. That night, she lets Gilbert sleep in her bed for the first time.
While Queenie cares for the baby, Bernard mopes around the house. As time goes by, he becomes tolerant of and then attached to the little boy, and in turn Queenie softens towards him. However, on the day the Josephs move out, Queenie suddenly asks them to adopt her baby. She knows that social stigma for a biracial child will be intense, and she doesn’t think she can handle the challenge. Bernard protests, saying that they can pretend the baby is adopted. Shortly after this uncharacteristic display of generosity, Gilbert touches Queenie’s shoulder and Bernard starts shouting at him, making clear to Queenie that he’s unable to take on a black baby.
After seeing Bernard’s behavior, Gilbert and Hortense decide to adopt the baby. Queenie tearfully packs up his things while Hortense cradles the baby. Stitched into his sweater she finds a small pouch with a wad of cash and the pictures from Michael’s wallet. With the baby and their few possessions, the Joseph’s leave Queenie’s house for their new home and new life as a family.