Tom Brodzinski is a man who takes his own good intentions for granted. But when he finally decides to give up smoking, a moment’s inattention to detail becomes his undoing. Flipping the butt of his final cigarette off the balcony of the holiday apartment he’s renting with his family, Tom is appalled when it lands on the head of one his fellow countrymen, Reggie Lincoln. The elderly Lincoln is badly burnt, and since the cigarette butt passed through public space before hitting him, the local authorities are obliged to regard Tom’s action as an assault, despite his benign intentions. Worse is to follow: Lincoln is married to a native from one of the rigorous, mystical tribes of the desert interior, and their customary law is incorporated into the civil statute.In order to make reparations to Mrs Lincoln’s people, Tom will have to leave his family behind, and carry the appropriate goods and chattels deep into the arid heart of this strange, island continent. Any of this might be bearable, were it not for Tom’s companion, forced on him by his enigmatic lawyer, the mixed-race Jethro Swai-Phillips.
Brian Prentice, like Tom, has to make reparations and although there is a taboo that prevents either man from knowing the exact detail of the other’s offence, Tom’s almost 100 per cent certain that he’s a child-abuser. As they drive into the desert and encounter a violent counter-insurgency war that Tom has allowed himself to remain in ignorance of, the relationship between the two men becomes one of complicit guilt as well as seething mistrust. Refusing facile moral certitudes, Will Self’s latest novel is set in a distorted world, in a country that is part Australia, part Iraq, part Greeneland and part the heart of a distinctively modern darkness.