While Luke and Anna are still enjoying their new home, the complete lack of rain in Garra Nalla continues to be an annoyance. They had known that the area was prone to drought before they moved there, but they realize that hearing about the dryness isn’t the same as living in it. The couple is amazed at how dry the air is, especially when compared to the damp smell of their apartment back in the city. This dryness gradually settles into them, and they begin to feel as if it’s a part of them now. When their water tank starts to smell a bit off, Luke installs a filtration system beneath their sink. His skill in this practical matter surprises Anna, who assumed Luke wouldn’t be able to handle some of the house’s tougher projects.
Luke and Anna’s struggles with the drought serve as a reminder that nature will always push back against their attempts to settle in Garra Nalla. In the context of Sir Frederick Treves’ disappointment with the dry and desolate Holy Land, the merits of living in a drought country are called into question. By settling in Garra Nalla, Luke and Anna are attempting to bring their own little piece of civilization into a wild, natural space. This isn’t impossible so far, but it does present its own unique challenges.
As they walk by the lagoon one afternoon, Luke and Anna meet Alan Watts, another resident of Garra Nalla who lives nearby. Alan, his wife Bette, and their two children Zack and Briony live in a large but sparsely decorated house on the headland. Luke and Anna quickly become friends with the Watts family, and they begin playing tennis together on weekends. The tennis court is near an army base, so helicopters sometimes pass overhead as the couples compete. One day, a helicopter lands and two young soldiers step out. As Luke and Alan chat with them, Luke can’t help but feel old compared to the soldiers, even though they’re not much younger than him. He feels as though he’s lost much of his nerve and youthful energy.
Once again, the tight-knit community of Garra Nalla proves to be a grounding and comforting element of Luke and Anna’s new lives. Befriending the Watts makes the Worleys feel even more welcome in the small town, helping them tolerate the difficult climate. Luke’s insecurity about his age reveals another change that has taken place—one that Luke hardly noticed until now. This realization is contrasted with the youthful energy of Luke’s tennis matches with Anna and the Watts. The contrast highlights how aging can change someone over time in surprising and upsetting ways, but also maintains the hope that not all of Luke’s youth is gone.
That same evening, Luke, Anna, and the Watts play cards and discuss how they’ve been dealing with the drought. As the men examine brochures for a portable desalination plant, Anna and Bette stand by the window and watch a distant pod of dolphins. To Anna’s surprise, Bette suddenly asks her if she’s thought about starting a family. Anna answers that they haven’t decided yet, as she and Luke “have to decide where home is” first. Anna knows that she isn’t giving Bette the whole story, and Anna hopes that the boy isn’t around to hear this conversation.
This sudden question once again highlights how Garra Nalla’s community might help to make Luke and Anna’s lives better, albeit indirectly. Anna is clearly hiding something here, maybe even from herself. But with Bette as her friend, Anna can’t keep it hidden forever. The community’s concern for her forces her to think about something she has been avoiding: something concerning the boy. Anna’s answer to Bette’s question is a major clue about the boy. Either Anna is hiding him, or maybe Bette can’t even perceive him.
Luke’s father Ken visits Garra Nalla in July, seeming restless as he gets accustomed to his new retirement. Ken seems clearly unimpressed with the rural area his son has moved to, wondering why Luke would want to live in a place without any of the usual features of a modern city. Luke holds his tongue. He doesn’t feel like arguing with his father about the move or his law degree, which Ken believes has been squandered by Luke’s career choices. During a walk one evening, Ken asks Luke how Anna has been handling her asthma, as well as “that other business.” Luke is silently annoyed that Ken can’t even openly talk about this recent, tragic event—seemingly something about losing a child. But it also occurs to Luke that this “other business” probably hurt Ken, who has no grandchildren.
Ken’s negative attitude about Garra Nalla brings the conflict between nature and civilization back into focus. There’s a deeper disconnect between Luke and Ken, as Ken can’t imagine why Luke would want to live without modern conveniences, not understanding what Luke wants from a closeness with nature. Another disconnect stems from Ken’s unwillingness to mention the traumatic event that affected Anna. But ironically, even though Luke resents Ken for refusing to name the event, Luke has been just as quiet about it throughout the novel. This exchange offers a major clue about the true nature of the boy.
Luke and Anna continue to tolerate the presence of Ken, who tries unsuccessfully not to seem bored. Anna privately jokes about Ken, comparing him to an old-fashioned school inspector, but Luke is miffed by the way Ken condescends to Gil. In the meantime, Anna notices that the boy never seems to appear when Ken or Gil are around. She wonders if the boy doesn’t like being around old men. On Ken’s last day in Garra Nalla, Anna hears the boy crying in the middle of the night and gets out of bed to check on him. His bed is empty, but this doesn’t scare Anna, as she knows the boy always comes back.
When Luke resents Ken for talking down to Gil, he reveals that he’s already become defensive about the community of Garra Nalla. By taking Gil’s side against his own father, Luke shows how much he appreciates the town’s community and proudly considers himself a part of it. Anna’s reaction to the boy’s disappearance essentially confirms that the boy is most likely more of an apparition than a real, literal child. The implications of this will develop over the course of the novel, but in every case, Anna still cares deeply for the boy regardless of what he is—or isn’t.
Spring arrives in Garra Nalla, bringing a relentless wind with it. A dry, scouring wind blows constantly, surprising even Gil with its consistent intensity. While Anna tries to put up with it, the wind eventually begins to get on her nerves as it continues for weeks. The sound of the wind rattling against the old house keeps her up at night, and Luke’s wry detachment annoys her. He’s a much heavier sleeper, so the wind doesn’t bother him nearly as much. One day, Anna leaves the laundry out to dry on the line outdoors, and a sheet blows off the line and into a patch of bracken. When she reaches down to pick it up, she finds a copperhead snake coiled underneath. Frightened, she has Luke ask Gil to get rid of it. After dispatching the snake, Gil winks and remarks that now Anna can really call herself a local.
Luke and Anna once again grapple with the consequences of suddenly transitioning from civilization to nature. At this point, Anna begins to become the focal character of the novel a bit more than Luke, as the challenges of living in Garra Nalla affect her more strongly. Dealing with the harsher elements of nature makes her seriously question whether country life is right for her after all. Despite Anna’s misgivings, Gil’s slightly teasing remark reminds her that problems such as wind, droughts, and snakes are all part of living in the community of Garra Nalla. While Anna’s struggles discourage her, they only make her more of a true citizen of Garra Nalla in Gil’s opinion.
The constant wind doesn’t abate as September and October roll around, and the drought is equally stubborn. While Luke and Anna hope for rain every time they hear a rumble of distant thunder, they eventually give up hope that the drought will end any time soon. It’s easy enough for Luke to tune out the wind as he works with his headphones on, but the wind still bothers Anna as her mental health deteriorates. Back in the city, the weather had just been background noise, but out in the country, the weather defines her world much more strongly. She begins to wonder if moving to Garra Nalla was a mistake, but Luke reassures her. He insists that they give it a proper chance by staying in Garra Nalla for at least another year. He’s patient with her, but he doesn’t want to think about leaving yet.
The challenges presented by a lifestyle closer to nature continue to become more intense. Luke’s insistence that the two of them stay in Garra Nalla stems from two different factors. The first is that the area’s oppressive weather doesn’t bother him as much as it bothers Anna. But another factor is that Luke has already become attached to Garra Nalla and is determined to give his idea a fair chance. In Luke’s opinion, the downsides of living in the “wild” country are outweighed by the benefits. But Anna also has a point, as improving her mental health was one of the main reasons she agreed to move out of the city in the first place.
After getting through a long and busy period of work, Luke continues reading the travelogue by Sir Frederick Treves. Frederick is once again unimpressed by his visits to holy sites. He looks down contemptuously on the pilgrims visiting the supposed site of Cavalry, describing them as gullible fools and painting the entire experience in a depressing light. As Luke reads this, he can’t help but compare Treves’s commentary to Ken’s skeptical and cynical attitude. He reflects on Sir Frederick’s disillusionment; can such a dry and desolate place really be the Promised Land? Meanwhile, Anna watches the nightly news while the boy plays on the rug in front of her. As she watches the violent horrors of the Iraq war on the screen, she tells the boy that at least he’ll never have to be a soldier.
Once again, Sir Frederick’s travelogue mirrors the experiences of Luke and Anna. Treves was hoping to find comfort and meaning in the Promised Land, but instead he finds a miserable place he considers to be a wasteland. Likewise, Luke and Anna fled to Garra Nalla to create a new life for themselves, but they have since been plagued by drought and constant wind. In both cases, nature’s harshness (compared to the comfort of civilization) makes it more difficult to meaningfully connect with it. Meanwhile, Anna’s comment about the boy heavily implies that he’ll never grow up or is unreal in some way. She seems to be comforting herself rather than the boy in this moment, possibly showing a glimpse of an internal struggle she hasn’t made explicit yet.
On a Saturday afternoon, Luke and Alan discuss the book by Sir Frederick Treves as they clear weeds from behind the sand-hills. Luke marvels at how the Middle East has become an area of constant war, when it was apparently so uneventful during Sir Frederick’s day. Alan surprises Luke by telling him that Gil has a grandson deployed as a commando in Afghanistan. Luke wonders why Gil wouldn’t have told him, and Alan explains that Gil is superstitious. Gil believes that if he doesn’t dwell on it, his boy will be safe. This conversation reminds Luke of the boy—his own boy—and he realizes he hasn’t thought about the boy in a while. On the way home, Luke sees a boy who looks a lot like his boy, and Alan points out a dead swan nearby that was apparently electrocuted by wires overhead.
Gil’s secret is just as surprising to the reader as it is to Luke in this moment. After he’s been so open and honest throughout the novel, it seems odd that Gil would keep something so significant to himself. But this reveals that no character—not even Gil—is immune to grief or the fear of loss. Luke’s internal reaction to this news is yet another hint about the boy. The appearance of a dead swan nearby reinforces this sudden focus on death and tragedy, and the sight of the bird most likely reminds Luke of trauma or anxiety of his own. The electrocuted swan also represents another violent clash between nature and civilization, as well as the possibility that positive change might be unlikely for Luke and Anna if death follows them wherever they go.
The drought and the winds persist into November. Still shaken by the rough climate, Anna wonders if more snakes will start showing up, and also wonders what it would take for them to move back to the city. As Luke watches birds on the veranda one evening, she tries to float the idea off-handedly, remarking that she doesn’t think she could live in Garra Nalla all her life. Luke continues watching the birds, and Anna eventually goes inside, frustrated. But Luke has been paying attention the entire time, and he knows she’s upset. Understanding that Anna needs a break from the country, he suggests that they take a vacation into town. With feigned reluctance, Anna agrees.
At this point, Anna’s recent doubts and anxieties reach their tipping point, fortunately without an argument. Just like she did back in the city, Anna feels that her environment is turning her into something she doesn’t want to be. This time, however, she’s discouraged by the challenges that nature throws at her every day in Garra Nalla. While she does most likely need a respite from the constant wind, she already knows that the city has problems of its own. Regardless, her determination to take a vacation pays off, and she seems more likely to see things clearly once she’s out of the wind. But even as Luke agrees to take a break, the symbol of the birds is still present, implying that Garra Nalla remains a place where positive change can happen.
When the couple tells Gil that they’re visiting the city, he tells them to be careful not to “get caught there.” Feeling that Garra Nalla is truly their home now, Luke tells Gil not to worry about it. While Luke feels optimistic about the vacation on the drive out of Garra Nalla, he almost immediately sinks into a bad mood when they’ve arrived in town. He complains about the noise and the crowded beaches, and he even misses the gulls back home: the ones that live on a diet of shellfish rather than chips and other discarded human food. After five days in the city, Luke heads home early, while Anna resolves to stay in town for a while longer.
The couple’s reactions when returning to the city reveals that Luke has changed much more than Anna has so far. Luke’s discomfort with the urban area and its birds reveals that he’s already made himself at home in Garra Nalla despite only having lived there for a few months. But that brief stretch of country life was enough to make him miss Garra Nalla almost as soon as he left. Nature is preferable to civilization as far as Luke is concerned, but Anna is still willing to give the latter another try.
During her time alone in the city, Anna is happy to finally be out of the wind and free from Luke’s complaints. But eventually, she begins to feel confined and homesick, missing the spacious rooms of her house and the natural beauty of Garra Nalla. She realizes that Luke has created a situation where she can’t truly feel at home anywhere, whether urban or rural. Anna also notices that the boy hasn’t appeared to her during her entire stay in the city. She wonders why the boy always takes his father’s side, and she realizes that she hasn’t even seen the boy in three weeks. When she tries to picture his face, it’s pale and hazy like an old photograph.
Anna’s crisis is caused in part by the fact that she feels stuck between two worlds: nature and civilization. It’s possible that she was searching for some kind of perfect middle ground by returning to the city, but it’s clear that a “perfect” place for her doesn’t really exist. Instead, she’s forced to decide which place she’s more willing to call home: the comfortable but claustrophobic city, or the beautiful but brutal country. Her anxieties about the boy seem to be calling her back to Garra Nalla, and the way she thinks about him confirms that he simply appears and disappears like a phantom or hallucination. The imagery of this moment implies that there’s something about him that she’s still unwilling to face directly.
Before she leaves the city, Anna resolves to live in Garra Nalla for at least one more year. However, she also privately decides that one day, they must move again. Until then, she wants a project to work on—something meaningful to leave behind before they move away. She researches the kinds of plants she could grow in a garden and decides to plant some weeping she-oaks. She considers this particular kind of tree to be beautiful and mysterious like no other plant she knows. To her annoyance, Gil advises her not to plant she-oaks, as they’re extremely flammable. On her first night back home, she digs for more information on the internet and discovers that her she-oaks are fireweeds that “respond to fire as others do to rain,” making them sound almost phoenix-like.
By deciding to plant the she-oaks, Anna finally commits to living in the country and leaning into nature, on the condition that she knows it isn’t permanent. This new fascination with a specific type of plant is what finally convinces her to leave civilization behind again. The phoenix-like nature of the she-oaks will become more significant later on. It implies that a violent or dramatic rebirth might need to take place before Anna can fully grow into herself as a person.
Gil visits Luke and Anna in an uproar one night to tell them that the consortium is planning to create a massive tree plantation in Garra Nalla. He furiously explains that the reckless landscaping, chemicals, and pesticides involved in the process will poison the lagoon and pollute the area, forcing the swans to breed elsewhere. Anna is outraged at this news, wondering if the local government will do anything about it. Gil explains that the council has always been in the pockets of the developers. Both Anna and Luke are upset by the idea that their quiet country town will be disrupted by noise and pollution, but Luke soon begins to calm down about it, which annoys Anna. She tells the boy that Luke doesn’t “deal with things,” and the boy runs off, seeming to take his father’s side as usual.
Gil’s concerns about the local environment and his distrust of the consortium once again show his dedication to the community of Garra Nalla. However, one of the reasons why Luke and Anna enjoy Gil’s company is that he isn’t just a bitter old man who hates outsiders. Gil eagerly welcomed Luke and Anna into Garra Nalla’s community almost as soon as they moved in, but the consortium’s tree plantation is a disruption he can’t approve of. This is because he knows that this development will hurt the people of the town as well as the wildlife. Once again, civilization tries to invade nature, and their conflict threatens to ruin the couple’s new home.
Anna is usually charmed and reassured by Luke’s personality and sharp mind, but during the next few weeks, she starts to resent him. She doubts that he’s created a good life for them, and she feels as though his old personality is slipping away. Where he was once sharp and alert, he now seems distant and stupidly content, almost as if he’s high or drunk. Anna watches him have an inane conversation about birds with Rodney on the veranda one day, and she despises the dull, boyish look on Luke’s face as he grins.
At this stage, the possibility of change becomes frightening and frustrating for Anna, rather than hopeful. Garra Nalla seems to be changing Luke, but not in the way she expected. Luke is drifting through a daydream from Anna’s point of view, while Anna still struggles to feel at home in this place, especially with her husband acting so odd. The presence of birds indicates that a change is taking place, but for once it seems to be a negative one.
Anna looks out the window at Luke coming home from birdwatching one afternoon, and she suddenly feels completely alienated from him. She feels a dizzying sense of vertigo and panic while she watches her own husband as if he’s just a feature of the landscape, or a stranger. In this frightening moment, Anna has the sensation that everything in her life is illusory, inconsequential, or slipping away from her.
All of the frustrations and anxieties that have been affecting Anna recently come to a disorienting climax. Anna has allowed her discomfort with change to grow into an existential crisis, as she loses her grip on Luke and even on herself. The novel is named after this defining moment in Anna’s development, as she struggles to accept the idea that people (including herself) can suddenly change in ways she isn’t comfortable with.
The thought occurs to Anna that she and Luke could disappear and nothing would change. Is there no meaning to their lives beyond their daily struggle to survive? Anna almost wants to grab onto Luke and steady herself when he walks inside. She feels lost and unmoored, and she wonders if this is because the boy seems to have abandoned them. For some reason or another, she senses that an important part of her is fading and dying.
In the midst of her sudden crisis, Anna is struck by how insignificant her life feels when compared to the vast natural space around her small home. The noise and bustle of the city might have distracted her mind and numbed her existential pain, but out in the country, there’s almost nothing separating Anna from her thoughts. She feels that even if she manages to change for the better, her life might not matter in the grand scheme of things. Her feeling of being lost and directionless stems from this realization, but it’s also fueled by her fears about the boy abandoning her. It seems that Anna needs to untangle her unspoken feelings about this strange boy before she can ever find peace.