An insidious plague infests an isolated town in a land that suggests a location like Australia. Although the affliction is not fatal, the enigmatic epidemic is characterized by a discoloration of the skin, generalized malaise, and occasionally aching eyeballs. Its spread seems somehow linked to the lack of rain and the group of native "savages" who inhabit the harsh land outside the town.

Prejudice and paranoia are clearly greater threats to the townspeople than the relatively benign plague that has infiltrated the city. Rayner is a sympathetic and lonely doctor who finds himself caught between the residents of the town and the savages. When both he and his girlfriend, Zoë, develop the pathognomonic pigmentation of the plague, their lives acquire deeper meaning.

The novel ends with an army of soldiers originally intent on exterminating the savages instead withdrawing after the troops witness a mystical native ceremony. Rain clouds overhead are poised to unleash a deluge.


Although the townspeople and savages in this story are physically, culturally, and spiritually quite distinct, they nonetheless share a similar fate as exiled human beings. In fact, the destiny of both groups seems foreshadowed early in the novel with the warning, "If a species fails to adapt, it dies." [page 15]

Environment exerts a tremendous influence on the characters in this story. Suffering is only temporarily interrupted by moments of satiety. Issues of isolation, loss, transition, and desperation abound. Physicians are portrayed as fallible and even helpless in the face of an epidemic. In this sense, Rayner acknowledges that he is only able to treat the fear of his patients.


First published in London (William Heinemann,1991).



Place Published

New York



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