In late November, Anna and Luke visit a nearby tree nursery to buy she-oaks for the garden. Afterwards, Alan and Bette suggest that the four of them have lunch at the Wolga hotel. The weather is nice as they eat on the hotel’s veranda, and Anna feels like she might be alright after all. Back home, she plants the she-oaks in the garden, arranging them in a disorganized way so that they look wilder. Luke, Anna, Gil, and the Watts celebrate the new garden at Luke and Anna’s house, taking the lack of wind as a good omen. After their visitors have left, Luke and Anna make love in the living room. Then they sit out on the veranda and drift into a contented sleep.
Despite her recent crisis, everything finally seems to be improving for Anna. Her community of friends helps her escape from her worries (at least temporarily) and begin to develop into the kind of person she wants to be. The garden might represent Anna’s mental state at this point, as she fills it with beautiful new plants in the hopes that they’ll grow strong and healthy. For a moment, it seems like Anna’s life might finally be changing for the better, partly thanks to her new community connections in Garra Nalla. But the mention of the lack of wind being a good omen will soon become ironic as a new potential crisis arises.
When Anna wakes up that afternoon, she’s surprised to see that the blue sky has been stained by a smudge of brown. She sees a cloud of smoke rising from behind the distant hills, and Luke remarks that it looks like a bushfire. Anna expresses concern, but Luke reassures her, saying that it’s far away at the moment. Alan approaches the house to retrieve his wife’s forgotten sunglasses, and he also brings up the distant bushfire. Still concerned, Anna says she’s glad they live near the water. Alan insists that there have been fires in this area before, but they never reach the coast.
News of the bushfire feels ominous from the start, as the natural beauty of the area threatens to erupt into flames. Just when everything seemed perfect, nature continues to test Luke and Anna’s willingness to stay in Garra Nalla, rather than returning to the relative safety of civilization. The first sight of smoke has a menacing aura to it despite Alan’s calm attitude. It seems likely that the distant bushfire heralds the arrival of a significant change, whether for good or ill.
The next morning, Luke and Anna awake to find that the air around their house is full of smoke, obscuring the landscape outside. It’s clear that the fire is still quite far away from them, but the smoke clouds make the house stifling hot all day. That night, they find themselves almost hypnotized by the sight of the distant mountain range burning. Though they know the fire isn’t near and they’re probably being paranoid, they still have trouble sleeping in the sweltering heat. Anna wakes up at around three in the morning and cries to herself, thinking of the boy as Luke sleeps. She hasn’t seen the boy at all in weeks, and she wonders if they did something to offend him, and whether he might have abandoned them. She makes tea and feels comforted by the coziness of the kitchen, then she goes back to bed.
The surprising abundance of smoke builds tension and confirms that the bushfire might become a serious problem, even as others insist that fires never reach the coast. After enduring constant wind and drought, the wild area around Garra Nalla gives Luke and Anna their most dangerous challenge yet. If the fire gets too close, their willingness to live away from civilization might be pushed to its limits. At the same time, Anna still struggles to process her feelings about the boy as her stress builds. Even though the bushfire is just a random natural event, she can’t help but feel guilty, as if she deserves to be abandoned by the boy and by nature itself. Why she might feel this way will become clearer later on.
Luke wakes up Anna later in the morning and tells her that the bushfire has reached the foothills. Now that the fire is closer, they’re forced to take precautions throughout the house, such as filling buckets and the bathtub with water and having towels on hand. Later that day, the fire damages the power station in the hills, and Garra Nalla loses electricity. As the smoke in the air gets thicker, Luke says he’s going to go check on Gil, insisting that Anna should stay home and keep out of the smoke to avoid an asthma attack. Anna goes with Luke anyway, and Gil mentions that he's never seen a fire like this before. Nonetheless, he maintains that fires never reach the coast.
Nature continues to encroach on Garra Nalla’s tiny spot of civilization, interrupting the citizens’ lives and threatening to do much worse. The neighbors’ assurances start to sound less and less credible as the fire grows closer by the minute. The possibility of the bushfire reaching the coast likely worsens Anna’s fears that she and Luke made the wrong choice by moving out of the city. But Gil remains a steadfast friend, functioning as a reassuring presence to keep the community of Garra Nalla together in this stressful time.
Luke reads by candlelight back in his home that night, wanting to know the ending of his old book by Sir Frederick Treves. To Luke’s surprise, Sir Frederick finally arrives in a place that isn’t disappointing at the end of his journey. Treves describes the ancient city of Damascus as a beautiful and sweet-smelling place, full of romantic and inspiring sights. Luke reflects on how surprising it is that Treves has fallen in love with the Islamic city of Damascus of all places, despite being a Christian. Meanwhile, Anna works on her laptop and writes a message to her sister in Hong Kong. Despite the fire, Anna doesn’t wish she was somewhere else. She reflects on the strange sense of calm in the house, especially on a night like this, which should make her tense.
One last time, Sir Frederick’s journey mirrors that of Luke and Anna, at least potentially. After struggling through a long series of desolate and depressing locations, Treves finally finds a place that makes him content. In the same vein, Luke and Anna’s current troubles might soon pay off as they find a metaphorical Promised Land of their own. Treves’s trip to Damascus also highlights every person’s capacity to change in surprising ways. If a devout Christian like Sir Frederick can love an Islamic city, Luke and Anna might truly change and make their home in Garra Nalla despite their doubts and inexperience.
Later in the night, Anna’s feeling of calm fades and is replaced by a growing fear of losing the house. She imagines what would happen if the bushfire does reach the coast, and wonders if they’ll ever have a home that won’t be constantly threatened. In a fitful sleep, she dreams that she’s in a burning department store full of possessions she didn’t know she owned. In the dream, Luke tells her that they need to hurry out of there, but she keeps rummaging through the items in the store, desperately looking for the boy, whom she doesn’t want to leave behind.
Anna’s nightmare reveals the intensity of her fears at this point and provides more clues about the boy. While the fire in her dream corresponds to the bushfire she fears in the real world, it might also represent her own internal world crashing down around her as she begins to feel lost. In the dream, Luke insists that the two of them escape the burning building—in other words, move on. But Anna seems unwilling to leave this dangerous situation, and the only reason is the boy. In this light, it’s possible that the boy is something she needs to let go of—something she’s already lost but refuses to forget.
Anna wakes from this dream with her heart pounding, but she’s relieved to hear that the wind has dropped. Over breakfast, Luke tells her that the authorities have issued an alert for every town along the coast, including Garra Nalla. He explains that the wind is due to pick back up again in the afternoon. On their battery radio, they hear that the Wolga hotel—where they dined just a few days ago—has burned to the ground. Later that morning, Alan calls and tells them that Bette can’t decide whether or not to take the kids away from town until the fires have died down. Alan insists that it’s not safe to drive while there are fires raging, and he suggests that the two couples play tennis. Anna is bemused by the idea, but Luke figures playing a game is better than waiting around in dread.
The bushfire reaching the coast becomes a serious possibility at this point, and the townspeople don’t even try to dismiss the idea anymore. But Garra Nalla’s community still comes together at this uneasy time, helping each other relax as they wait for things to resolve. Luke and Anna’s friends are one of the main reasons why they can endure the harsh challenges that living in the wild country presents to them. As their small civilization is threatened by a natural disaster, the town’s community supports itself by supporting every citizen—an approach that would be much more difficult in a massive city.
Anna thinks that they all must be mad as she, Luke, and the Watts play six games of tennis under the churning, smoky sky. When they’re all too exhausted to play anymore, they go home to shower, then they meet again on the headland to watch the fire’s progress. After seeing the burning sandhills and noticing a plume of smoke on the horizon that wasn’t there yesterday, they head home again and wait to see what happens. Luke works on his laptop, but Anna feels restless and jittery, feeling like she needs a manual task to keep her mind occupied. That afternoon, the sky turns grayish yellow as the wind picks up, and a strange light descends on Garra Nalla. Anna still feels nervous as the house and the garden are shaken by the howling winds.
The purpose of this sequence is mostly to build the dramatic tension. It’s clear that the climax of the novel is approaching, and that whatever is about to happen will likely change Luke and Anna’s lives significantly. Anna’s earlier anxieties about the wind seem dwarfed in comparison to the disaster that might be about to unfold in Garra Nalla. But Luke and Anna have chosen to live in the wilderness, and the harshest possible consequence of that choice is now right at their doorstop.
Even Luke is frightened as the wind gets stronger. He tells Anna that he has to go back to the headland to see what’s happening. He once again worries about Anna’s breathing in the smoke, but she insists on going with him. After shielding her nose, mouth, and eyes with a scarf and sunglasses, Anna and Luke stagger up to the headland. Many of the other townspeople (including Gil and Alan) are already gathered to watch the blaze while shielding their eyes. An explosive firestorm has developed in the distance, and the onlookers watch in shock as faraway houses and trees burst and incinerate. They watch for an hour, and several townspeople use rakes to keep flammable material away from the fiery projectiles flinging towards the town.
Luke and Anna were comforted and distracted by their tennis game with the Watts earlier, but now the entire town of Garra Nalla has shown up to help each other. The town banding together demonstrates the power of community more strongly than anywhere else in the novel. But the approaching bushfire is still an unsettling presence, and it seems frighteningly possible that the community’s efforts won’t be enough. While Garra Nalla is a very small community, it’s still a civilization in its own right, and nature may decide to reclaim it.
Eventually, Gil points towards the horizon and tells everyone that the wind has changed direction; it’s no longer blowing towards Garra Nalla. As they watch the burning sandhills, they see the fire struggling to move towards them, and Gil remarks that maybe the worst of the firestorm is behind them. This seems to be the case, but Alan and Luke point out that they should nonetheless stay and keep watching, just in case. Just then, Bette points to the north and shouts for everyone to look in that direction. A massive smoke cloud, surging with flames, is headed right for them. As Gil starts to wonder how it moved up the coast so quickly, the cloud emits a searing fireball that sets a canopy of brush aflame. Immediately, the group scatters and runs.
This sudden incident is the tipping point that launches the novel into its climax. Despite the community’s best efforts to maintain a sense of control, the citizens of Garra Nalla have no choice but to flee when faced with such a powerful natural disaster hitting their town. Nature has fully invaded this tiny civilization at this point, making the next few minutes a game of survival—a matter of life and death. Luke and Anna fled the city to live close to nature, but now nature has come to them in its full, destructive force.
Alan yells to Bette, telling her to take the kids down to the beach where they’ll be safer from the fire. Luke tells Anna to go with Bette, but Anna refuses as the two of them sprint through the smoke towards their house. After rushing in through the backdoor, they quickly scramble for wool clothes in the bedroom. Luke considers putting on his favorite heavy sweater, but he decides against it and tosses it onto the bed. Meanwhile, Anna submerges towels in the full bathtub and rolls them up into tight, wet ropes that can be jammed against the doors. As Anna rushes out into the garden to join Luke, a fireball begins to consume the yard with incredible suddenness. Luke yells for Anna to get back in the house. They both rush inside and slam the door behind them as the flames crackle and rage through the garden.
Anna’s worst fears seem to come true as the firestorm reaches the house itself, putting both her and Luke in serious danger. Her garden is seemingly destroyed in this moment, representing the complete collapse of her emotional barriers during this harrowing experience. Now more than ever, nature is testing the limits of Luke and Anna’s willingness to live in the country rather than the safety of the city. Meanwhile, the significance of Luke’s decision to leave his favorite wool sweater behind will become clear later on.
Horrified, Luke and Anna watch the flames outside, realizing that there’s likely no safe means of escape. They soon hear the sound of a fire truck as it swiftly backs into their garden. A fireman jumps from the truck and yells at the couple to climb in. With Luke and Anna in tow, the truck speeds out of the burning yard in the nick of time. The truck stops by the lagoon, where many of the townsfolk are already taking refuge in the water. After thanking the firemen, who only showed up at the house by sheer luck, Luke and Anna wade into the lagoon themselves. Anna’s thoughts race as she wonders if anything is left of their house. Luke asks if she’s alright, and she testily answers yes, knowing that anger is the only emotion that will get her through this crisis.
While the fortunate arrival of the firemen was a massive relief, Anna is still as far as she can be from calming down. Her snappy reply to Luke is a sign that she’s hiding her overwhelming fear and panic with anger. She’s deeply afraid that she and Luke have already lost their new house, but both of them have effectively suppressed their more vulnerable emotions throughout the novel. Regardless, the firestorm has pushed them to their limits, and now it will likely become harder for them to ignore the feelings they’ve been hiding from themselves.
Luke and Anna look around for Gil and Alan as they listen to the distant roar of the fire, but with no luck. After night falls, a police car pulls up to the lagoon. A man with a megaphone steps out and tells the townsfolk that they’ll be given dry clothes and taken to a nearby church to spend the night. He explains that they can’t return to their homes because the entire town has become a possible crime scene. The police will be looking for signs of arson, even though the townsfolk know for certain that it was just a particularly bad firestorm.
The police suspecting that the fire might have been the result of arson emphasizes just how destructive the firestorm was. It also confirms what Gil has been implying throughout the novel: people outside of Garra Nalla’s community don’t know the first thing about the place. While the police investigate possible arson, the townspeople know that the firestorm was just a natural disaster, as they saw it take shape with their own eyes. This sharpens the contrast between Garra Nalla and the outside world, but it also highlights how the town’s community can easily take care of itself without outside intervention.
At the church, the people of Garra Nalla rest on many mattresses strewn about the floor of the large hall. Anna sees a limping and singed old woman walk by, telling a fireman that she can’t blink without it hurting. Relief workers provide supper for everyone, but Luke only takes one bite of his sandwich before his adrenaline wears off and he falls into an exhausted slumber. Anna watches him lovingly, thinking of how typical this is; Luke really could sleep anywhere. She lies awake for a while before dozing off, but the cry of a baby in the hall wakes her, and her arm brushes a child by her side. She realizes with overwhelming relief that it’s the boy, who’s returned to her at last. She watches him sleep and caresses him, murmuring to herself that she knew he was indestructible.
While the effect that the firestorm had on the people of Garra Nalla is rendered in saddening detail, the town’s community continues to stick together after the disaster. The solemn atmosphere of this moment highlights the townspeople’s care for each other and seems to imply that the worst is over. It’s notable that the boy finally returns to Anna during this time of quiet and rest. Without any distractions or emotional barriers left standing, Anna is free to reunite with the child she feared she’d lost. But despite how comforted Anna feels, the boy still seems to be a phantom or hallucination that appears only to Anna and Luke. This implies that something is still wrong in their world—something that needs to be settled once and for all when the smoke clears.
In the morning, a constable informs the townspeople that they’re lucky: the fire somehow only destroyed three houses in all of Garra Nalla. He explains that two unoccupied shacks and one family’s house were claimed by the fire, but the rest of the houses are intact. Luke and Anna can hardly believe this until they see the house for themselves, surrounded by the charred remains of the garden but still standing. Inside, a thin layer of ashes covers everything, and Luke notices a dead bird in the middle of the floor. He realizes that this is the same owl-like bird that stared at him some time ago. Anna is surprised and exasperated to see how upset Luke gets over this bird’s passing. She finds herself feeling angry with him again; after all they’ve been through, why is he upset by this one bird?
Despite the relief Luke and Anna feel when they see their house is unharmed, the dead bird on their floor feels like another omen—a sign that something important still needs to be resolved. In any case, it’s implied that Luke isn’t mourning the bird itself. Whether he knows it or not, he’s thinking of something else that’s grieving him. The strange sense of happiness he felt when he first stared at the owl-like bird has been replaced with a dismaying sight that brings him sharply back to reality. Even though the disaster spared the house, the sight of the dead bird is a reminder that nature and civilization are still at odds. And, as usual, a dead bird signifies that change might not be possible for Luke and Anna, even despite the catastrophe they just survived.
Just as Anna is about to take a shower and get rid of all the filth from the fire so she can think more clearly, she notices something in the bedroom. Luke’s favorite wool sweater, which he had left sitting on the bed, has a black hole in it. She realizes that an ember must have blown in during the firestorm and landed on the sweater, where it burned itself out without setting the sheets (and the house) ablaze. Anna almost feels like crying, but she’s too tired and doesn’t have the energy. Just then, she hears Luke calling for her. She finds him on the veranda, watching Gil raking charred embers away in his yard.
The realization that Luke’s sweater might have saved the house almost forces Anna to face her emotions—but not quite. She’s still flustered and distracted by the nightmarish events of the previous day, but an underlying sense of unease and unresolved grief remains. Gil’s survival is another distraction, but a very welcome one. Luke and Anna’s deep concern for Gil is a sign that they’ve truly become a part of Garra Nalla’s community and that they care for their neighbors.
Luke and Anna immediately pay Gil a visit, and he cheerfully confirms that the Watts were evacuated to a nearby town, and that they’re probably back in Garra Nalla by now. In fact, no one in Garra Nalla died during the blaze. Somehow, the little town survived an incredible firestorm. Alan later describes the fear he felt as he clung to rocks on the beach as the fire approached. He was afraid that his kids would get swept away into the ocean, so he was really more afraid of the water than the fire in that moment. Gil confirms that “it’s all different when your kids are with you,” and acknowledges that they were all relying on pure luck, even the children.
The fact that Garra Nalla survived the firestorm with no casualties once again reinforces how effective a small community can be when it comes to protecting their own. Nonetheless, the natural disaster still shook the townspeople deeply, as Alan’s reaction demonstrates. Garra Nalla learned what it truly means to be at the mercy of the elements as their small civilization was threatened by nature like never before. Alan’s fear of losing his children reflects Anna’s own anxiety about the boy abandoning her. Between her, Gil, and now Alan, the fear of grief and loss affects nearly every major character in the novel.
That evening, Luke leaves the house without telling Anna. He walks in an area of nature reserve nearby, where the fire scorched everything in sight, leaving no plant life intact. As he wanders in this desolate place full of ashes and charred remains, he weeps as he’s mentally transported back to a terrible day two years ago in the hospital delivery room. Anna had just had a miscarriage, and the broken landscape around Luke reminds him of the pale, lifeless body of their unborn son. On that dark day in the hospital, a counsellor asked them if they wanted to name the boy. Numbly, they agreed, as it seemed like the right thing to do. But in the end, they only ever thought of him as “the boy,” as this felt somehow more intimate.
At long last, the truth about the boy is revealed through this flashback. The boy is only an imaginary projection of what Luke and Anna imagine their son would have been like if he had survived the birth. This tragic fact has been heavily implied throughout the novel, but now it’s revealed beyond doubt. It makes sense to reveal the truth now, as this is the first time Luke has allowed himself to really think about Anna’s miscarriage since the beginning of the novel. The firestorm has swept through the area and left desolation in its wake, but the sight of nature’s destruction is ultimately what leads Luke to acknowledge his grief.
The sweater that Luke left on the bed was the sweater he had worn on another day he wanted to forget. He had worn it on a cold day when he and Anna cast the ashes of their unborn child into the sea. Luke left the sweater behind during the firestorm because he didn’t want it to be damaged, and because it reminded him of the son they never had. But by leaving the sweater on the bed, Luke likely (though unknowingly) saved their house. If that lone ember had landed on the bedsheets instead of fizzling out on the wool sweater, the house would most likely have burned down.
Luke’s flashback continues and gives more context for the grief that he and Anna have been hiding throughout the novel. The flashback also explains just how unlikely and miraculous it was that Luke left his sweater on the bed. In a way, it’s almost as if the couple’s unborn child saved their house. This comforting thought makes it even easier for Luke to finally come to terms with the pain of his loss after distracting himself from it for so long.
As Luke takes his walk, Anna nervously wonders where he could be. Bette guesses that he might be shell-shocked like Alan, who still stares out to sea as he processes what happened. Anna also tries calling her mother and telling her that Luke is nowhere to be found, but Anna is annoyed by how indifferent her mother sounds on the phone. Later that evening, Luke finally walks up the driveway in tears. Anna asks him if it’s that bad, realizing she’s never seen him cry before. Luke shakes his head and says he isn’t upset about the fire. She asks if it’s the boy, and he nods silently, standing still. She embraces him, and they stand in the doorway holding each other for a long time.
The couple’s embrace is the culmination of their long struggle with suppressing their grief. For the entire novel, they’ve silently imagined their boy alongside them, almost pretending that they really had a child. But now that Anna’s miscarriage is finally out in the open, they can reckon with their feelings and begin to heal. Anna almost immediately understood why Luke was crying when he came home, which implies that both of them were always aware of their shared grief, always lingering in the back of their minds. Evidently, a terrifying firestorm was drastic enough to break down their emotional walls and force them to face reality together.
That night, Anna dreams of the boy waving in an open doorway. This is unusual, as the boy has never visited her in her dreams before. In her dream, she sees him waving in a perfect version of her garden, before the fire destroyed it. Before she has a chance to wave back, the boy dissolves into the sunlight. She wakes from the dream with tears in her eyes, and she cries silently for quite some time. Eventually, she stops crying and lies on her back, staring up into the darkness with dry eyes.
In this dream, Anna takes time to herself to grieve for the boy she never had. Her embrace of Luke was a healthy first step, but grief is a long process that takes time to run its course—both in company and in solitude. Anna has hesitated to cry throughout the novel, but now she’s finally facing her emotions, and it’s changing her for the better. This is reinforced by the fact that the boy has never shown up in her dreams before. She still sees him, but in a different way; things have changed at last.
In late December, the citizens of Garra Nalla gather for a large picnic to celebrate the survival of their town. Many of the townsfolk are still in shock or traumatized by the crisis, but Bette insists on having a party so the children can see that the adults are fine. Anna finds herself in a happy, drunken haze at the gathering, and she admires the men of the town speaking intimately with each other as she watches them. She tells herself that she’s ready to give life another try, as she can’t delay decisions forever. After all, if she waits too long, there might not be a future to live in.
Garra Nalla’s community comes together one last time, confirming that they’re stronger and closer than ever following the firestorm. Such a traumatic event would be difficult for any one person to bear alone, so the community functions as a healthy support network for all of the townspeople. This includes Anna, who’s already showing signs of personal growth. Surrounded by a supportive community and emboldened by her emotional progress, it’s no surprise that she feels ready to start her life anew.
As these thoughts occur to Anna, she spots the boy in a skiff in the lagoon, paddling out to sea. She understands that he’s finally leaving them for good, but she feels ready to accept it. She waves goodbye and silently thanks him for staying with them for so long. At this moment, Bette happily points out that the black swans have returned to the lagoon. They haven’t been seen since the fire, and it seemed possible that they had flown away permanently. As the men look up to hear this joyful news, Anna waves to Luke and he waves back.
Anna’s goodbye to the boy marks the completion of her character arc. She was afraid to lose the boy throughout the novel, but now she willingly lets him leave for good. This demonstrates how much her experiences have changed her, now that she’s brought her grief into the light of day. By waving goodbye to the boy, she finally accepts that her unborn son is gone and that she can still live a full and happy life without him. It’s what the boy would want for her, after all. The arrival of the swans confirms that hope has returned to Anna’s life. Her life changing for the better is no longer just a possibility; it looks like a certainty.
That night, Luke dreams of many kinds of birds. He groans in his sleep as he tries to see the mysterious owl-like bird: the bird he still doesn’t know the name of. Anna brushes her teeth and throws away a packet of pills as she gets ready for bed, but she doesn’t feel tired yet. She resolves to make some toast and watch the nightly news until falling asleep. Anna looks out the window and sees that somehow, some of her she-oaks in the garden were untouched by the flames. She listens to the eerie sound of the wind whispering through the leaves, remembering how it felt to go canoeing with Luke and the boy. Turning away from the window, Anna lies on the couch, picks up the remote, and flips the television on.
Even with so many signs of positive change on the horizon, the novel still ends on a somewhat ambiguous note. On one hand, Anna has clearly begun to move on and heal from her grief, as she throws away her medication and seems at peace with her inner world. But at the same time, Luke’s uneasy dreams of birds he can’t name seems like an unresolved question, and Anna’s final action of the novel has a hint of irony to it. Watching the news is a habit she’s maintained since she was a teenager. This makes the novel’s ending a stark contrast to the opening, which describes Luke taking up a brand-new hobby of birdwatching. This might imply that some things can never change. The novel has a hopeful ending overall, but grief takes time to process. Luke and Anna’s lives go on, but subtle uncertainties still linger in the air, like the whispering of the she-oaks outside.