This is the third volume of a trilogy that follows the fortunes of shell-shocked British army officers towards the end of the First World War. The other books in the trilogy are Regeneration and The Eye in the Door .
The war poet Siegfried Sassoon, who appears as a major character in the first book, Regeneration , is relegated to a minor role in this final volume, in which the main players are the fictional working-class officer Billy Prior and the real-life psychoanalyst William Rivers. Thus Barker explores possible relationships between real people and fictional characters.
Prior, despite his new-found peace of mind and engagement to munitions worker Sarah, has been affected by the war and therefore does not have a lot of concern for his safety. Prior has been cured of shell-shock and is preparing to return to France. Prior experiences numerous and risky sexual encounters; his only rule is that he never pays for sex - a rule he eventually breaks.
Rivers, concerned for Prior's safety, finally recognises that his relationship with Prior, and his other patients for that matter, is deeply paternal. In contrast with upper-class officers like Sassoon, with whom Rivers has been able to form warm friendships, he has always found Prior to be a thorn in his side. As Prior returns to the front, Rivers continues to take care of his patients and his invalid sister, amid this he reminisces uncomfortably about his childhood and memories of his experience ten years earlier on an anthropological expedition to Melanesia (now Eddystone Island). There, he befriended Nijiru, the local priest-healer who took Rivers on his rounds to see sick villagers and also to the island's sacred Place of the Skulls.
This episode is a symbolic capitulation to the inevitability of Prior's death at the Western Front, a fate he shares with the poet Wilfred Owen. In a futile battle that takes place a few days before the Armistice, Billy and his friend Owen are killed.