The story follows the child's development to adulthood. Key themes are the racial convulsions around Zambian independence; the collapse of the white community; racism and the complexity of race relations; personal and national identity; the abuse of power; a child's development to adulthood; adolescence, delinquency and love; the disintegration of the narrator's personal world; and the wonder and beauty of Africa.
The child narrator arrives in Northern Rhodesia aged four. The diary for the early years is written retrospectively by the child aged ten. His parents' relationship breaks down and he is sent to a boarding school at the age of four with his sister, and thereafter to live with another family. These are white South Africans, warm and kind within their family and community, but with the usual racist views. He adjusts to this situation and adopts a personal identity which is local and Southern African. This is reinforced by his Afrikaans stepfather who is anti-British and becomes a strong influence. He feels unloved by his mother and neglected when his father remarries. His sister who spends most of her childhood at boarding school becomes emotionally damaged. The intention in this childhood section is to build a detailed picture of this white society in the 1950s, both its normalcy and distortions, the complexity of race relations, and fascination with the natural environment.
The narrator's approaching adolescence and sexual awakening coincide with upheaval in neighbouring Congo and racial and political tensions in Zambia leading to independence. The narrator becomes increasingly delinquent and describes these events at street level as they affect him. He fails his GCEs, his father's business collapses, and the family decamp to Rhodesia. There he comes into conflict with authoritarian aspects of the Rhodesian education system and society generally. He drifts towards a libertarian group of friends and begins to question racism. He forms a close relationship with the daughter of a leading liberal. The narrator describes attitudes and events leading up to UDI and its aftermath, including encounters with Ian Smith. The final section deals with the narrator's time at a South African university where he becomes involved in the protest movement. He visits his home town in Zambia and comments on the collapse of white society there, and his increasing alienation from it; similarly many liberal whites are leaving Rhodesia, inherited by rump of hardliners.
The intention is to produce a rich and informative picture of this period, honest, critical and unflattering. The work is carefully researched so that key historical events are portrayed accurately and intimately. There is an attempt to explore more than the surface manifestations of white racism and identity, linking them to contemporary and historical events. However the emphasis is always on the story rather than the themes, told through apparently unconnected diary entries which build a narrative. The use of the diary format is intended to provide a sense of immediacy and bring the society to life, and so portrays some racist language and disturbing scenes despite its profoundly anti racist message.
The story is based on the author's own childhood, but essentially is a work of fiction.