The novel begins on a man named Thornhill's first night in New South Wales. He wakes up and steps outside his hut, where an Aborigine man confronts him. They yell at each other, and Thornhill goes back to bed scared. The novel then jumps back in time to Thornhill's birth in 1777 to a very poor family. In his childhood, Thornhill spends time with a girl named Sal and her family. Thornhill's parents die when he is 13, and the following year Mr. Middleton takes him on as an apprentice waterman. For the first time, Thornhill is warm and well-fed, but he loathes working for the gentry because they don't treat him like a person. Thornhill marries Sal the day he gets his freedom from his apprenticeship, and they have their first son, Willie, a year later. Two years after that, the Thames freezes and Mrs. Middleton falls on the ice, and both she and her husband die within a week of each other.
Thornhill's life begins to go downhill. He loses his boat and all his money, so he begins stealing. He takes a job working for Mr. Lucas and learns that Mr. Lucas will be transporting valuable Brazil wood. He makes a plan to steal the wood with the help of his brother, Rob. As Thornhill is stealing the wood, Mr. Lucas catches him. Thornhill is jailed, and Sal thinks up a brilliant story to prove his innocence, but at his trial, he forgets his story and the judge sentences him to hang. Sal insists that Thornhill pay someone to write a letter. The letter is successful: a Lord Hawkesbury pardons Thornhill and instead sends him to the penal colony of New South Wales for the remainder of his natural life. Sal and Willie go with him.
Sal has her second child, Dick, in Cape Town on the way to New South Wales. When they arrive, officials assign Thornhill to her to work as a convict servant (in this system, convicts were assigned either to private masters or to the chain gangs to work for the duration of their sentences). Thornhill thinks the land is strange and uninviting, but soon finds work in Sydney Cove. He works primarily for a man named Mr. King, who has Thornhill smuggle liquor around the customs office. Sal is slow to adjust to their new home, but opens a very successful rum bar. She occasionally feeds an Aborigine man called Scabby Bill who hangs about the settlement. Thornhill runs into several people he knows working in the cove, including Thomas Blackwood. Blackwood is doing well for himself: he received a full pardon and works up and down the Hawkesbury River 50 miles outside of Sydney, where he owns 100 acres of land. After a year, Thornhill applies for his ticket of leave, which makes him a truly free man.
Sal has a third baby, Bub, who's sickly. Thornhill begins working with Thomas Blackwood. On his first trip up the Hawkesbury River, Thornhill is scared of the rough water and the harsh landscape, and Blackwood explains that the natives are everywhere, watching them. They meet a dog breeder named Smasher Sullivan, who rows out to them and shows them a pair of black hands that have been cut off an Aborigine man. Thornhill looks through Blackwood's telescope to see the flayed man strung up in a tree. Blackwood is angry and tells Thornhill that out here, it's “give a little, take a little” with the natives. Several months later, Thornhill tells Sal that he wants to live on the river. Sal refuses, but Thornhill doesn't stop thinking about it.
Blackwood retires the following year but gets Thornhill his pardon before he does. Sal and Thornhill borrow money from Mr. King to buy Blackwood's boat. Thornhill renames the boat the Hope and takes over trading along the Hawkesbury. Willie begins accompanying him, and Sal has her fourth baby, Johnny. Thornhill finally convinces Sal to move to the Hawkesbury River after she has her fifth baby, Mary.
The Thornhills leave Sydney for the Hawkesbury River in 1813. Thornhill brings a gun with him. He hopes it'll keep him safe, but he has his doubts. They sleep in a rough tent the first night. The next morning, Thornhill, Willie, and Dick find a flat area to plant corn. Willie and Dick insist that someone has already planted something there, but Thornhill dismisses this. They clear a patch, and while the boys run to fetch the corn for planting, two Aborigine men appear in front of Thornhill. Thornhill is scared but speaks to the men like he remembers being spoken to by gentry. The men try to talk to Thornhill, but Thornhill feels dumb not being able to understand them. When Willie and Dick return, the older of the two men tries to steal a spade. Thornhill hits the old man and shouts at him. The man finally drops the spade and they disappear into the forest.
Sal keeps a tally of the weeks on a tree, and Thornhill knows that she is scared and feels like a prisoner. After a few weeks, Thornhill climbs the ridge on the edge of his property. On one rock he finds carvings of a fish and of his ship, and he realizes the natives are everywhere and are always watching. He doesn't tell Sal. Smasher comes to visit with housewarming gifts, and when the children leave he begins to tell tales about the vicious savages and how he deals with them. Later, Sal makes Thornhill promise to not be as violent as Smasher. Thornhill makes friends on the river who come to drink at the Thornhills' hut. Sagitty is violent like Smasher, while Mrs. Herring insists that it's not worth fighting the natives. Blackwood tells Thornhill that the daisies he pulled up when he planted his corn patch won't grow back, and the natives will go hungry.
After about a month, Thornhill receives word that he's being granted convict servants. When he goes to pick them up, he chooses a man named Ned and another who turns out to be a childhood friend, Dan Oldfield. Thornhill and Sal insist that their servants call them Mr. and Mrs. Thornhill. The next day, as Dan and Ned work, Dan pleads for a break. Thornhill refuses and wanders in the shade with a flywhisk. As summer starts, Sal develops mastitis and nearly dies. When she finally recovers, she makes sure that Thornhill continued to keep her tally of days while she was ill.
Thornhill returns home one day to find Willie yelling that the natives have arrived. Thornhill decides to go to the natives' camp and talk to them. An older woman tries to talk to him, but Thornhill can barely look at her due to his embarrassment at her nakedness. When the men appear and try to speak, Thornhill cuts them off and insists that the land is his now, and they can have the rest of the country. One of the men tries to explain that Thornhill destroyed their crop of daisies, but Thornhill won't listen. Several weeks later, Thornhill and Sal begin giving the natives names: the old man is Whisker Harry, while two of the younger men are Long Bob and Black Dick. Sal trades with the native women for bowls and digging sticks, and Thornhill begins to see the natives as peaceful. The Aboriginal camp doesn't disperse and eventually Sal asks Thornhill to speak to Blackwood about it. When he arrives at Blackwood's camp, Blackwood reminds Thornhill of his idea of "take a little, give a little." Suddenly, Thornhill sees a black woman emerge from the trees with a blond child. Blackwood speaks to the woman in her own language and swears Thornhill to secrecy.
Dick begins disappearing in the afternoons. Thornhill knows that Dick is playing with the native children and doesn't tell Sal, but Bub tattles on his brother. When Thornhill goes to the camp to fetch Dick, Long Bob is showing the children how to make fire. Thornhill watches with the children as Long Bob successfully starts a fire without flint. The two men introduce themselves, but Thornhill can't understand Long Bob's name, and renames him Long Jack. When Sal later tries to tell Dick he can't play with the natives, Dick sulks and Thornhill beats him. Thornhill catches Dick trying to make fire the next day and helps him. When they're unsuccessful, Thornhill gives Dick permission to ask Long Jack to show him again.
As the weeks go on, more natives arrive. One night, the Thornhills hear the natives singing, and Thornhill goes to look at the camp. As he watches Whisker Harry dance, he realizes that Harry is an important figure among the natives. When he returns to the hut, Sal, Dan, and Ned are still afraid that the natives are going to kill them, so Thornhill shoots the gun into the sky to "send a message." Thornhill decides to buy dogs from Smasher. When he goes to pick them out, Smasher shows him a black woman he's keeping as a sex slave. Thornhill thinks about having sex with her and feels evil for thinking it. He refuses to go through with buying the dogs. One night, Thornhill comes home to find his hut filled with people. Smasher tells Thornhill that a man named Spider moved to the town of Windsor after the natives stole everything. When the natives continue to steal from others, Captain McCallum arrives with a plan to deal with the natives. McCallum's plan to trap the natives at Darkey Creek and kill them fails miserably, and the Governor gives the settlers on the river permission to shoot the natives. Sagitty suggests poisoning them one night, and when Smasher pulls out a pair of ears he cut off an Aborigine man, Blackwood attacks Smasher. After this, Sal wants to return to London.
A week later, Thornhill passes Darkey Creek. There, he finds a camp of Aborigines dead from poison. The next morning, natives steal Thornhill's corn. He fights them and shoots into the forest after them. He wakes up the next day to find his corn patch has been burnt to the ground. Sal walks over the ridge to the native's camp for the first time and tells Thornhill that she's leaving. They hear that Sagitty's place is on fire, and Thornhill goes to help. He finds Sagitty has been impaled by a spear. After taking him to the hospital in Windsor, the Hawkesbury group drinks at Spider's new bar. Smasher riles the group up and they decide to ambush the natives at Blackwood's place. Thornhill agrees, since he knows Sal will stay if the natives are gone. At dawn, Thornhill and the group crawl onto land and begin shooting women and children in their huts. Thornhill doesn't shoot. He watches Whisker Harry spear Smasher, and shoots Harry in the belly. Smasher dies.
Over the next ten years, Thornhill flourishes: he buys Sagitty's place and another 100 acres and builds a stone villa which Sal calls Cobham Hall where the Thornhills live in luxury. Sal tries to plant an English garden, but nothing will grow in the Australian soil. Dick goes to live with Blackwood and won't speak to his father. Long Jack lives on the property but won't accept food or clothing from the Thornhills. Mr. Thornhill tries to touch Jack one day, and Jack says in English that the land is his. Thornhill spends his evenings sitting on the veranda, watching the cliffs and the river. He thinks the cliffs look like a stage, and that watching them for signs of the natives is his punishment for what he did.