The story falls broadly into three parts.
In Post-World War II London, Jean Paget, a secretary in a leather goods factory, is informed by solicitor Noel Strachan that she has inherited a considerable sum of money from an uncle she never knew. But the solicitor is now her trustee and she only has the use of the income until she inherits absolutely, at the age of thirty five, several years in the future. In the firm's interest, but increasingly with personal interest, Strachan acts as her guide and advisor. Jean decides that her priority is to build a well in a Malayan village.
The second part of the story flashes back to Jean's experiences during the war, when she was working in Malaya at the time the Japanese invaded and was taken prisoner together with a group of women and children.
As she speaks Malay fluently, Jean takes a leading role in the group of prisoners. The Japanese refuse all responsibility for the group and march them from one village to another. Many of them, not used to physical hardship, die. Jean meets an Australian soldier, Sergeant Joe Harman, also a prisoner, who is driving a lorry for the Japanese and they strike up a friendship. He steals food and medicines to help them. Jean is carrying a toddler, whose mother has died, and this leads Harman to believe that she is married; to avoid complications, Jean does not correct this assumption.
On one occasion, Harman steals five chickens from the local Japanese commander. The thefts are investigated and Harman takes the blame to save Jean and the rest of the group. He is beaten, crucified, and left to die by the Japanese soldiers. The women are marched away, believing that he is dead.
When their sole Japanese guard dies, the women become part of a Malayan village community. They live and work there for three years, until the war ends and they are repatriated.
Now a wealthy woman (at least on paper), Jean decides she wants to build a well for the village so that the women will not have to walk so far to collect water: "A gift by women, for women".
Strachan arranges for her to travel to Malaya, where she goes back to the village and persuades the headman to allow her to build the well. While it is being built, she discovers that, by a strange chance, Joe Harman survived his punishment and returned to Australia. She decides to travel on to Australia to find him. On her travels, she visits the town of Alice Springs, where Joe lived before the war, and is much impressed with the quality of life there. She then travels to the (fictional) primitive town of Willstown in the Queensland outback, where Joe has become manager of a cattle station. She soon discovers that the quality of life in "Alice" is an anomaly, and life for a woman in the outback is elsewhere very rugged. Willstown is described as "a fair cow".
Meanwhile, Joe has met a pilot who helped repatriate the women, from whom he learns that Jean survived the war and that she was never married. He travels to London to find her, using money won in the Golden Casket lottery. He finds his way to Strachan's office, but is told that she has gone travelling in the Far East. Disappointed, he gets drunk and is arrested, but is bailed out by Strachan. Without revealing Jean's actual whereabouts, Strachan persuades Joe to return home by ship and intimates that he may well receive a great surprise there.
While staying in Willstown, awaiting Joe's return, Jean learns that most young girls have to leave the town to find work in the bigger cities. Having worked with a firm in Britain that produced crocodile- leather luxury goods, she gets the idea of founding a local workshop to make shoes from the skins of crocodiles hunted in the outback. With the help of Joe and of Noel Strachan, who releases money from her inheritance, she starts the workshop, followed by a string of other businesses; an ice-cream parlour, a public swimming pool and shops.
The third part of the book shows how Jean's entrepreneurship gives a decisive economic impact to develop Willstown into "a town like Alice"; also Jean's help in rescuing an injured stockman, which breaks down many local barriers.
The story closes a few years later, with an aged Noel Strachan visiting Willstown to see what has been done with the money he has given Jean to invest. He reveals that the money which Jean inherited was originally made in an Australian gold rush, and he is satisfied to see the money returning to the site of its making.
Jean and Joe name their second son Noel, and ask Strachan to be his godfather. They invite Noel (Strachan) to make his home with them in Australia, but he declines the invitation, returns to Britain and the novel closes.