A 34-year-old Australian man named Luke Worley has recently picked up the hobby of birdwatching. Even though he grew up in a suburban home with a beautiful garden, he has never been interested in birds prior to this point in his life. He might have thought this was funny some time ago, but things have changed in recent years. He’s developed his new interest in birdwatching ever since he moved to the coast with his wife Anna. Luke and Anna used to live in the city, where the birds were much harder to notice amid the bustle and noise. On some early mornings in the city, Luke would hear a sorrowful bird call that he was always curious about, but he never quite got around to identifying it.
It’s notable that the first line of the novel mentions that Luke is changing in an unexpected way. This immediately establishes one of the novel’s main themes: change and growth. From the beginning, it seems like it’s possible for the characters to change, but how exactly they might change remains to be seen. Birds represent the possibility of change throughout the novel, so their appearance at the outset is a sign that change will be a focal point going forward. A conflict between nature and civilization is also evident in this opening section, as alluring bird songs are drowned out by the noise and distractions of city life.
In the recent past, before they moved out of the city, Luke and Anna gradually begin to feel dissatisfied with their living situation. Anna has a chest infection and has been diagnosed with asthma, which disrupts her physically active lifestyle and damages her self-esteem as a result. Meanwhile, Luke begins to become disillusioned with city life, feeling less optimistic about his future and more depressed by his surroundings. In bed one night, Luke looks at a tired and sickly Anna gasping from her inhaler, and he knows that it’s time for a change. He can’t bear to see her like this, and the next day he suggests that they move to the country and work from home.
The opening sequence continues with yet another unexpected change in Luke and Anna’s lives: moving out to the country. In the conflict between nature and civilization, it seems like nature might be the key to a better life. The city itself seems to be draining their will to live, and a change of environment could change their mental state for the better.
Anna is very open to the idea of moving to the country. Luke’s parents are more skeptical, though Luke’s father Ken admits that the polluted air in the city is probably what caused Anna’s asthma. While Anna’s friends assume that she’s moving for her health, Anna secretly feels disillusioned with the city, much like her husband. In her shabby, cramped apartment with Luke, she begins to feel jealous of her wealthier friends. She knows that this envy is choking her free spirit and turning her into someone she’s not, so she’s determined to move to a place where she can regain her once-carefree attitude.
This insight into Anna’s mental state goes into more detail about why city life seems to be slowly killing the couple. It also introduces the idea that positive change and growth aren’t the only sort of changes that might happen to Luke and Anna. In fact, Anna is already in the process of changing, but she’s changing into someone bitter and miserable—someone she doesn’t want to become. If a person’s environment shapes who they become, a more natural and laid-back setting could take Anna’s transformation in a more helpful direction.
Luke and Anna research rural and coastal towns, compiling a list of likely candidates for places to live. When they drive off in their car to visit these places, they already feel freer. They’re also encouraged by the fact that their young boy chooses to go with them on this trip. The boy is usually withdrawn and rarely appears in the apartment, but now he’s staring curiously out of the car windows at the new sights. They drive through a variety of rural towns near the coast, but all of them seem either too old or too new for Luke or Anna’s tastes. One afternoon, a wrong turn takes them into a small coastal town called Garra Nalla.
The fact that Luke and Anna already feel better when they leave the city is a sign that their intuitions were correct; they’ll most likely be happier in a rural area. This road trip has a light, hopeful energy to it, which seems to imply that this sudden change of pace in the couple’s lives is a good idea. The boy also contributes to this uplifting attitude, but the description of his behavior is nonetheless a bit odd. He apparently only shows up when he feels like it, and the couple seem almost surprised to see him in the car with them.
By all appearances, Garra Nalla seems like the perfect place for Luke and Anna to live. The town is small, quiet, and has many beautiful natural features, including sandhills, white-sand beaches, and a lagoon where black swans swim. Anna thinks the town is “almost too picturesque” as she looks at the variety of colorful flowers and trees. Even the boy is excited by what he sees. As Luke and Anna stand on the headland and watch the sea, they wonder how a beautiful place like Garra Nalla hasn’t been turned into a crowded resort yet. On their way home, a local in a nearby town explains to them that tourists avoid Garra Nalla’s beach because of its dangerous riptide, which has caused four people to drown in the past five years. For Luke and Anna, this lack of tourism makes the town even more perfect.
Here, it becomes clear that Luke and Anna are looking for a place that’s as different from the city as possible. As civilization itself seems to be overcomplicating their lives, they can’t help but feel drawn to the simplicity of nature, however harsh it might be. In Garra Nalla, untamed nature is so aggressively present that it has driven tourists away. This makes it “perfect” for the couple despite being dangerous, as the challenges presented by nature seem preferable to the exhausting crowds of the city. Symbolically, the presence of swans indicates that Garra Nalla could be a place where positive change is possible.
Luke and Anna’s friends can hardly believe they’d want to live in a place without shops, hotels, and the like. But this lack of activity is exactly why the couple are so in love with Garra Nalla. It feels timeless and untamed—a place where they can live simply and free of modern complications that threaten to change who they are. They also love the old-fashioned house they’ve chosen, which has a wrap-around veranda, a cast-iron stove in the kitchen, and a generally homey atmosphere. It’s also made much more affordable by the fact that it isn’t by the coast, though it’s nonetheless within walking distance of the beach. While Anna sometimes hesitates to change their lives so completely, Luke remains confident in their choice. In January, they pack their things and officially move to their new home in Garra Nalla.
Once again, Luke and Anna reinforce their rationale for suddenly packing up and moving to the country. They realize that their surroundings are rapidly changing who they are, and so they wish to become something other than what the city is turning them into. By moving to such a wild place with so few modern conveniences, the couple is truly putting this mindset to the test. Rather than slowly changing their lifestyle as they go along, they’re diving headfirst into the wildest place they can find. Being close to nature will change them, but they can’t yet be sure how.
When they arrive at the house, Luke and Anna feel an excited sense of ownership, despite how musty their new home seems. The boy runs eagerly ahead of them as they unpack, exploring every room restlessly. They sleep on a mattress on the floor on their first night in the house, and Anna smiles at the evil-sounding hisses of possums on the roof. These noises frighten the boy, however. Anna calls him to the mattress and comforts him, kissing his blond curls and lulling him to sleep in her arms. Luke and Anna begin a new routine in the mornings, sitting out on the wide veranda together. Anna looks around for the boy, but strangely, she seems not to expect him to be there every morning.
Luke and Anna’s first night in their new house is defined by the presence of untamed nature. The possums on the roof and the rustic feel of the house immediately put them into a new world, far removed from the one they’re used to. Based on their initial reaction to this new, more nature-focused lifestyle, it seems promising. Once again, the boy’s role in the couple’s life seems very unusual. The fact that Anna doesn’t expect to see him every morning is a sign that maybe he isn’t a normal boy, as most mothers would be very careful to keep track of their children in a new house.
Anna and Luke settle comfortably into their new lifestyle. Luke takes up birdwatching, and both he and Anna are excited to learn about the local bird species. They feel as though the house has always belonged to them and that they’ve only just now claimed what’s rightfully theirs. Both of them work from home; Luke has his office up in the house’s glassed-in attic, while Anna takes her laptop into the sunroom in the back. The views of the sea and the hills are incredible, making the couple feel more grounded and connected to nature than they felt in the city. They spend much of their time on the veranda. The boy often runs along the veranda dragging a stick behind him, clattering across the wooden boards.
Luke’s new interest in birdwatching reinforces the possibility that he and Anna are truly beginning to change in their new home. For now, their suspicions about country life seem to be correct, and nature appears to be easily winning out over civilization (in their view). Birds become a constant presence in the couple’s lives from this point on, as living in Garra Nalla surrounded by wildlife begins to shape who they might become.
The couple starts a garden in March, and they enjoy the unfamiliar rhythms and movements of tiring manual labor. The boy often plays in the yard as they work, dancing around and throwing things and singing off-key. Luke and Anna don’t look into each other’s eyes at these moments, as they’d feel too overjoyed at what their lives have become. However, this new existence isn’t perfect, as Garra Nalla is in a dry area of frequent drought. The area has been experiencing a drought for the past seven years; a fact that almost makes it seem like the land is cursed. There’s rain and mist in the distant hills, but the town’s dryness forces Luke and Anna to conserve water as best they can.
At this point, the unique challenges of living in nature become clear. Luke and Anna didn’t expect their new lives to be perfect, but the dryness of the area will still take some getting used to. Regardless, the two of them still seem to prefer the physical challenges of nature to the emotional drain of densely packed civilization. Even with nature refusing to accommodate them, they still feel freer. Meanwhile, the moment Luke and Anna avoid making eye contact has an interesting layer of subtext. With the boy being as strange as he is, it’s possible that the couple chose not to look at each other for a reason other than being too happy. They might be thinking of something neither of them wants to mention at this point.
Luke and Anna have two neighbors in Garra Nalla: Gilbert Reilly and Rodney Banfield. Gilbert (whom they call Gil) is an old widower who introduced himself shortly after the couple moved in. He often visits their house to dispense advice and local folklore. He generally likes Luke and Anna, remarking that they bring interesting new life to the town. Likewise, the couple appreciates his friendly nature and are grateful that he’s not one of those old men who rants about the “good old days.” Meanwhile, Rodney is a short man in his twenties and a plumber. He’s secretly sleeping with a local miner’s wife, and he’s rumored to have a marijuana plantation in the hills.
Befriending their neighbors helps Luke and Anna begin to feel like a part of Garra Nalla’s small community. Despite the fact that the couple moved to the country partly to escape the crowds, they’re still compelled to meet the people of this small town. These new connections seem to make Luke and Anna feel more grounded in their new environment, possibly because they’re focusing on one or two people rather than juggling too many social engagements. The town’s community might become one of the key factors in the couple’s new life.
Luke enjoys seeing the wide and colorful variety of birds on his frequent walks. One evening, around dusk, he spots an unusual, owl-like bird staring at him from a low branch. The birds in the garden usually fly away when someone approaches, but this bird continues to calmly stare at Luke while he stares back. After a few silent moments of this, Luke continues his walk home, feeling strangely elated and “pointlessly, mindlessly happy.” He’s unable to discover the species of the bird in his book that night, but he tells Anna that simply seeing the bird is more important than naming it. It’s like the boy in that way—they’ve never named him, and that’s the way it should be. Luke wishes the boy could have been there to see the bird with him, but he knows the boy is out of his control.
The encounter with the owl-like bird is one of the defining moments of Luke’s time in Garra Nalla. He seems to feel a deeper connection to nature than ever before as he stares at the strange bird, but there’s also something else on his mind, lingering just beneath the surface. It may have something to do with the boy, who once again seems to occupy a strange place in Luke and Anna’s lives. Parents can never completely control the behavior of their children, but for some reason, this seems especially true for the boy. As always, the presence of a bird indicates that more changes are on the horizon, for good or ill.
After visiting an old mansion in the area, Luke and Anna ask Gil about the history of the place. Gil explains that the mansion once belonged to the McKinnon family, who were involved in the local community back in their day. After the patriarch of the family died, the eldest son inherited the mansion, but he was soon caught in a riptide and drowned. After that, the mansion was purchased by a consortium of businessmen, who have no interest in Garra Nalla’s locals and only use the mansion for the occasional party, where they invite people from the city. Gil speaks of these businessmen scornfully, holding the McKinnons in much higher regard.
Gil’s explanation highlights the novel’s ongoing conflict between nature and civilization. Nature scares people away from Garra Nalla with its deadly riptides, but civilization still occasionally tries to invade the area as the consortium purchases property nearby. With his knowledge of the area and strong opinions about the local history, it’s clear that Gil is a loyal member of the town’s community. He seems to care far more for Garra Nalla’s wellbeing than for anything outside its borders.
Gil also recounts the story of how Garra Nalla’s coastal area was once called Ross’s Farm. An old soldier named Ross unsuccessfully tried to start a farm on the coast after World War I, but he eventually shot himself. As Gil explains the history of the area, he tells another story about the time he heard gunshots coming from the edge of the lagoon. He found people from the business consortium shooting swans. Though they told Gil they had a permit, Gil called the police to put a stop to their reckless behavior, as the shooting was dangerous for anyone in the sandhills. He remarks that his mother used to bake swans occasionally, and that they tend to be delicious.
As Gil continues to tell Luke and Anna the history of the area, nature and civilization are once again at odds with each other. Gil’s concern for the town’s community certainly extends to the wildlife, as his concern for the swans demonstrates. However, his admission that swans are delicious is a sign that his reverence for nature has its limits. Otherwise, he might believe that eating the occasional swan is just another way of nature taking its course. In this moment, as in many others, Gil’s role as a character is to connect Luke and Anna to the larger community they’re gradually becoming a part of.
In April, Anna buys an old yellow canoe from a neighboring town. After a local surfer teaches them the basics, Anna and Luke make it a habit to paddle along the lagoon in the late afternoons. Sometimes the boy comes with them, sitting contentedly in the canoe and nervously freezing whenever a swan comes near. During these days, Luke begins to have recurring dreams about massive tidal waves that swallow Garra Nalla and submerge it underwater. But rather than being frightening, these strange dreams comfort Luke. As he swims in the sunlit waters of his dream, the boy swims alongside him. The boy’s face is glowing, and translucent fish swim beautifully around his unravelling blond curls.
Luke and Anna’s new canoeing hobby indicates that moving to Garra Nalla was probably a good idea. They’re enjoying themselves and connecting with nature much more than they ever did in the city, and a happier life seems to be within reach. But Luke’s dreams tell a different story, as they feel vaguely ominous despite seeming to make Luke happy. The tidal wave is a reminder that the natural beauty of Garra Nalla could become violent at any moment. And the boy appears as an almost angelic figure in the dream, which once again implies that he may not be what he seems.
At night, Luke tends to read, as he doesn’t want to keep looking at a screen after working all day. Anna, on the other hand, tends to watch the news in the evenings. This habit started when she was a teenager. Her late father would watch the news constantly after coming home from long shifts, so Anna had to watch the news with him in order to spend time with him. This had made her feel more like an adult, and more included in his world. Now, however, she watches the nightly news to keep in touch with the world outside of Garra Nalla. She also keeps up with friends and posts humorous anecdotes about country life on social media, while Luke mostly stays offline.
Even as Luke and Anna adjust to life in Garra Nalla and change their routines, some things seem to stay the same. Anna continues her long-held habit of watching the nightly news, in contrast to her many recent lifestyle changes. This implies that maybe some things will never change, despite how the couple’s circumstances have shifted drastically. Anna’s habits of watching the news and keeping up with social media indicate that she still feels a connection to the broader community she left behind since moving to Garra Nalla. But lasting change takes time, and Anna isn’t obligated to ignore her old community just because she’s joined a new one.
Shortly after the couple moved into their new home, Luke found two old trunks in a shed behind the house. The trunks were full of antique books that had once belonged to a reverend who retired in Garra Nalla. But rather than religious texts, the reverend’s books were mostly old travelogues, documenting journeys and explorations around the world. Now, Luke has been poring through these interesting old tomes and begins reading one called The Land That Is Desolate, written by a physician named Sir Frederick Treves. The book, published in 1913, gives an account of Sir Frederick’s travels in Palestine. Luke had forgotten about the book until he saw Anna watching footage of a rocket strike in Gaza on the news and became more interested in Palestine’s history.
It's possible that Luke becomes interested in the book by Treves partly because he’s interested in how a place (in this case, the Middle East) can experience such drastic changes in such a relatively short amount of time. Notably, Sir Frederick Treves is a real historical figure who wrote the travelogue described in this passage.
Upon reading The Land That Is Desolate, Luke is surprised to discover that Sir Frederick Treves seems to be a cold and cynical man of science, rather than the faithful pilgrim Luke had imagined. After the death of his daughter, Treves traveled to the Holy Land to find a sense of meaning, but all he seemed to find was disappointment. Luke reads Sir Frederick’s scathing account of The Promised Land, which describes it as a hollow and decaying place that long ago lost whatever beauty it might have had. Treves goes on to describe many holy sites as miserable and unremarkable locations.
The description of Sir Frederick Treves mourning his daughter is the first direct mention of grief in the novel. This theme will become more significant later, and its presence here hints at the kinds of challenges Luke and Anna might face. Treves’ journey already seems to echo the couple’s experience in some ways, as they both venture away from their homes to escape from a painful way of life and search for a new purpose. While Luke and Anna aren’t quite as disappointed with Garra Nalla as Treves is with the Holy Land, their new home still presents comparable problems of drought that can make it feel like a wasteland at times.
A passage about olives in the book reminds Luke of the new olive plantation on the coast. He reflects on how fresh changes are coming to Garra Nalla, and how his and Anna’s arrival is just one of those changes. He puts the book down and watches the stars as he stands alone with his thoughts, knowing that even the stars’ fixed position in the sky is only an illusion. Things are always moving and changing. On a moonlit night recently, Luke took Anna out to the headland, where they embraced beneath a she-oak thicket, with the sound of the sea churning below them.
This moment of reflection highlights the novel’s themes of change and nature. After living in Garra Nalla for some time, Luke has begun to feel more connected with the natural world, which gives him a sense of how everything—including him—is interconnected. Not only are the couple’s lives changing since they moved, but they also change Garra Nalla simply by living there. Luke realizes that for everything, even nature itself, change is constant and inevitable. He isn’t yet sure how living close to nature will ultimately change him and Anna (or vice versa), but he knows more transformations are on their way.