In his new bachelor flat, too close to comfort to his former family home, Mike Newall, Oxford don and Wittgenstein scholar seeks to rebuild his life, but feels increasingly weighed down by the past.
When Donovan O'Dwyer, his colleague and fellow expatriate New Zealander dies, Newall attends the funeral. Afterwards, Newall reveals to his old friend Bertie Winterstoke the secret that O'Dwyer carried with him to his grave. During the battle for Crete in the Second World War, a soldier in New Zealand's Maori battalion died in harrowing circumstances. Believing his commanding officer, O'Dwyer, was responsible for the death, the soldier's family placed a makutu, a Maori curse, on him.
Winterstoke demands to be told all, and in the days that follow Newall obliges. But Newall's life and O'Dwyer's are curiously interconnected and Newall finds that he must interweave O'Dwyer's tale with his own - his childhood in New Zealand, his self imposed exile in Oxford, his marriage and divorce, the pilgrimage recently made to Croatia and the promise of a new beginning that this may hold. Gradually, through a series of entwined stories, beautifully told, reflecting on decades of war and of peace, on memory and its failures, and on language and its limitations, Mike Newall comes to see a way of laying the ghosts of O'Dwyer's - and his own - past to rest.