Samuel Steyn is a surgeon in his early forties. Recently divorced, he lives alone in Johannesburg in a high-rise luxury apartment. In the throes of an inexplicable malaise, he is both emotionally and physically isolated from the rest of the world. His eight-year old daughter, Samantha visits occasionally from Cape Town, where she lives with her mother, Anita. One winter morning, as they are about to make a trip to the zoo, Sam is caught in a violent shoot-out between police and a group of robbers in the attempted cash-in-transit heist of a security van near Grayston Drive. Samantha is fatally wounded by a stray bullet, together with a Portuguese motorist, both of whom happened to have been at the wrong place at the wrong time. Distraught, Sam’s world falls apart. Sam seeks succour and comfort – in varying degrees, from his ageing father, Richard, with whom he has a fractious, uneasy relationship. He also has a nascent romantic involvement with the recently-arrived Helve Kivimaa, an Estonian specialist working at the hospital.
Seeking to find out who killed his daughter – it’s unclear if it was a bullet from the police or the robbers – Sam spirals increasingly out of control. Embittered and frustrated by the pace of events – brought about by incompetence, evasions and miscommunications – he attempts to force an answer at the local police station, an occasion that quickly deteriorates into brutal farce. Accused of being racist, he is savagely assaulted by the police and tossed into jail. He gets help from Max Lipzinsky, a work colleague with whom he has a budding friendship, borne out of a similar worldview they both share. Both men are rootless, lonely and solitary, seemingly unable to engage with the outside world and disillusioned with the country they live in – in the words of Rian Malan, they have “tuned out of South Africa a long time ago.” They look at things from a different point of view however; Sam had performed his army service as a medic on the border, a witness to many wartime atrocities which still haunt him. Lipzinksy had fled to London in the eighties, studying and working there before returning to SA after the ’94 elections. It is too late before he realises that he has been led into what seems like a trap. Worse, he realises that he has compromised what little morality he had left.