Luke and Anna are a married couple living in a city in Australia. Their life isn’t terrible by any means, but both of them have begun to feel a sense of growing emptiness and dissatisfaction with their lives. Luke feels as though he’s lost his youth and purpose in life, while Anna becomes despondent after being diagnosed with asthma, which interferes with her usually active lifestyle. As he watches his wife struggle to breathe in bed with him one evening, Luke decides that a serious change is necessary. He suggests that the two of them pack their things and move to a more rural area, where they can both work from home. Anna is on board with the idea, though their parents are more skeptical. Nonetheless, they begin researching and scouting for the perfect rural town to move into. They already feel freer as they drive out on the open road to take a look at the towns they’ve researched. They’re also delighted to look in the backseat and see their young boy sitting there, gazing out the windows curiously at the new places. Eventually, they accidentally find themselves in a tiny coastal town called Garra Nalla. The area looks beautiful and (more importantly) free of tourists due to the dangerous riptides. Thinking it’s perfect for them, the couple decides to move to Garra Nalla.
As they settle into their new house in Garra Nalla, Luke and Anna enjoy how simple and homey the place feels, especially when compared to their small, drab apartment in the city. They also get acquainted with Gil, one of their new neighbors. Gil is a friendly old widower who welcomes the couple into the community as he gives them advice and shares his knowledge of the area. Luke takes up a new interest in watching and identifying the local birds, and the couple plant a garden in their yard. The boy seems happy to be in this new place; Luke and Anna admire the way he runs across the house’s veranda and plays around in the garden. One evening, while coming home from a walk, Luke encounters a strange, owl-like bird that stares at him as he stares back. This experience makes Luke feel connected to nature and happy in a way he can’t explain; he only wishes the boy could have been there with him to see the bird as well. Luke and Anna soon meet more friendly denizens of Garra Nalla: the Watts family. Alan Watts, his wife Bette, and their two children welcome the couple into their home, and they begin to play tennis together regularly. Luke and Anna also begin canoeing on Garra Nalla’s large lagoon, bringing the boy with them (though he seems afraid of the swans).
Despite the joys of their new home, Luke and Anna’s lives aren’t perfect. Garra Nalla is in a very dry area, prone to drought, and the couple is forced to conserve water as much as possible. The area is also plagued by strong winds that continue day and night for weeks on end. The noise and the dryness of the wind begin to seriously get on Anna’s nerves, especially as she becomes annoyed at Luke’s indifference to the weather. When Luke’s father Ken comes to visit one week, he wonders how Luke could possibly want to live in such a wild place, cut off from the conveniences of civilization. Luke is silently annoyed by his father’s doubts, and Ken vaguely asks how Anna’s been dealing with “that business,” referring to something he doesn’t want to mention directly. In the following weeks, the wind becomes too much for Anna, to the point where she tries casually telling Luke that she couldn’t live in Garra Nalla her whole life. Luke takes the hint and suggests that they take a break and visit the city. Anna agrees, though Luke doesn’t stay in the city long; he already misses the natural beauty and privacy of Garra Nalla. Anna stays behind in the city for a few more days, enjoying the lack of dryness but still not feeling at home. She realizes, sadly, that she hasn’t seen the boy in quite a while, and she wonders why the boy always seems to take his father’s side in everything.
After Anna returns home from the city, she and Luke plant the weeping she-oaks that Anna purchased, despite Gil’s warnings about the plants being highly flammable. After celebrating the new additions to the garden with Gil and the Watts, Luke and Anna fall asleep on the veranda, only to wake up and see a smoky sky later that day. A large bushfire has started in the hills, and Garra Nalla soon becomes smothered by the smoke drifting in from the distant blaze. The locals insist that fires never reach the coast, but Luke and Anna still find themselves feeling mildly anxious as they hunker down in their sweltering house. Their concerns intensify as the bushfire grows ever closer, and Anna continues to wonder why she hasn’t seen the boy in such a long time. She begins to worry that he’s abandoned them, and worries that maybe the fire will claim their house; maybe they’ll never find a real home. Later on, after the fire has taken out Garra Nalla’s electricity, Luke and Anna join the townsfolk as they gather together to watch the approaching flames. For a moment, it seems as though the wind is changing in their favor, and that the fire might spare them. But just as they begin to let their guard down, Bette points out a churning, dark cloud of smoke and flame that none of them noticed before. The cloud throws a fireball into the town, and the denizens of Garra Nalla scatter in panic.
As the smoke and flames of a perfect firestorm begin to engulf Garra Nalla, the Watts run for the safety of the coast while Luke and Anna rush back to their house to put on wool clothing. Fire begins to consume the garden just as they begin to leave, seeming to trap them in the house with no safe escape route. Just then, a fire truck backs into their yard and firemen rescue the couple, taking them to the relative safety of the lagoon, where many of the townsfolk have gathered. Soon enough, policemen inform the frightened townspeople that Garra Nalla is a crime scene (somehow, arson is suspected) and that everyone will be given food and a place to spend the night at a nearby church. On a mattress on the floor of the church’s hall that night, Anna is relieved to find that the boy has returned to her. She drifts off into an exhausted sleep with the boy cradled lovingly in her arms. The next morning, a police officer tells the townsfolk that the fire has miraculously failed to burn Garra Nalla to cinders. Almost all of the houses remain intact, and there were no casualties.
Luke and Anna return to their house, relieved to find that it hasn’t burned down. However, Luke becomes surprisingly upset when he sees that, during the fire, a bird has flown into their chimney and died on the floor; the same owl-like bird he saw before. Later that evening, he walks among the ashes and cinders where the bushfire burned the most furiously. The bleak sights around him force his memory back to a terrible day in the hospital: the day that Anna had a miscarriage. “The boy” was never a real child. He was only a phantom that Luke and Anna imagined; an image of the child they wished they’d had. Luke comes home later that night, crying in front of Anna for the first time. As they meet in the doorway, they both know what he’s really crying about, and they embrace as they think of the boy they never really had. Anna weeps that night in bed as she finally faces her grief and dreams of the boy disappearing before her eyes. Days later, the Watts family hosts a large picnic to celebrate the town’s survival. Anna and Luke attend, and Anna sees the boy out in a canoe on the lagoon, paddling away. She feels prepared to let him go, and to give herself a chance to live again. She waves goodbye to the boy and thanks him for staying with them for so long. That night, Luke dreams of the owl-like bird while Anna stays up and watches the news, seemingly content.