Zelda, a second-hand clothes dealer who lives with her female lover Foxy, learns that her father has committed suicide. She rewinds her memories, searching for a key to understanding his misery, and turns to a relatively happy period just at the edge of puberty. With consummate skill, Glaister evokes the unalloyed sweetness of a child's pleasure: a tree house complete with an ant farm, the smell of a baking Swiss roll, the peace of early mornings.
But at night Zelda lies braced for her father's screams, which regularly jar the household from its sleep. Although never spoken, his trauma is acted out through strange habits. History's significance is woven through the novel. Foxy is an oral historian, but adopted and with no interest in finding her birth parents; Zelda dresses in Forties' fashions.
The tension that runs like a live wire through relationships heightens when an awkward, deaf boy named Vassily Pudilchuk moves in next door and Zelda's parents force her to befriend him. Nicknamed "dog-belly", Vassily is the fatherless new boy at school, and his Mum is on the game. With their uncanny instinct for hounding the vulnerable, the children select him for torture and Zelda's own cruel jokes escalate as her father pays him increasing attention at home. Egged on by her elder sister, the girls plot revenge. "It was as if I had a goblin's face printed on my heart, ugly, far uglier than Dog-belly's ... If he had been big and strong I don't think I would have felt like that. But he was weak."
Glaister deftly controls a complicated plot and an emotionally charged subject without descending into cliches about the victims of war. Zelda's adult memories of Vassily parallel her revelations about her father's war experiences. As she begins to accept the horrors of her father's wartime legacy, she looks with a new pragmatism on her relationship with the faithless Foxy. The adult Vassily, now a successful architect, accepts Zelda's apology. Finally, Wanda, Vassily's errant mother, emerges as the unexpected link in the chain who allows for understanding and forgiveness. With understanding there is closure, and the dead can finally rest.