This short novel is set in Queensland and opens a few years before World War I begins. Jim's love of birds has resulted in a great change in his life, as Ashley, the young owner of the great estate, recognizes his gift and asked him to create a sanctuary. Early on, we learn that Jim
... had a map of all this clearly in his head, as if in every moment of lying here flat on his belly watching some patch of it for a change of shape or colour that would be a small body portraying itself, he were also seeing it from high up, like the hawk, or that fellow in his flying-machine. He moved always on these two levels, through these two worlds: flat world of individual grassblades, seen so close up that they blurred, where the ground-feeders darted about striking at worms, and the long view in which all of this part of the country was laid out like a relief-map in the Shire Office -- surf, beach, swampland, wet paddocks, dry forested-hill-slopes, jagged blue peaks.
Knowing that Jim could not avoid the contagion of war fever, I read this lovely section of the book slowly. On a visit to Brisbane that coincided with the terrible news of the losses of Gallipoli, he begins to feel the tug and eventually joins up.
Eventually we are taken to the horror of Flanders and to provide relief, I found locations of the battles on a map and read online the difference between an estaminet and a cafe (hard to say, really). One unforgettable image Malouf gives us is the closeness of non-war life in the region to the trenches.
Often, as Jim later discovered, you entered the war through an ordinary gap in a hedge. One minute you were in a ploughed field, with snowy troughs between ridges that marked old furrows and peasants off at the edge of it digging turnips or winter greens, and the next you were through the hedge and on duckboards, and although you could look back and still see farmers at work, or sullenly watching as the soldiers passed over their land and went slowly below ground, there was all the difference in the world between your state and theirs.
And it's one devastating image after another. The idea of the mechanization of war that occurred with this war is not an unfamiliar idea, but Malouf's poetry makes it real again. After Jim has been at this for some time,
Packed again into a cattletruck, pushed in hard against the wall, in the smell of what he now understood, Jim had a fearful vision. It would go on forever. The war, or something like it with a different name, would go on growing out from here till the whole earth was involved; the immense and murderous machine that was in operation up ahead would require more and more men to work it, more and more blood to keep it running; it was no longer in control.