This, the author writes, is “the novel of the indiviual in a world of barbarians.” It is the story of Ondine and Oscarke, a young married couple adrift in a Belgian landscape that is darkening under the spread of industry and World War I. Ondine, who “came to serve god and live,” finds that she must “serve the gentlemen” instead.
Oscarke, an aspiring sculptor, finds himself unsuccessfully scouring Brussels for work and, when he is finally hired, too tired to make his own art. They grow old and their four children grow up as “technology and mechanization, unemployment, fascism, and war” take over around them. War destroys their attempts to establish a better life, which they seek continually and against all odds. And the chapters about these characters, some of whom first appeared in Chapel Road, alternate with chapters about Boon himself, who describes the impossibility of modern life and the destruction of war.
As this wide-ranging novel progresses, the author’s struggles—both with writing and with his own life—come more and more to resemble those of his characters.