Bridget O’Brian, (Bridie) born 1913, is a woman repressed for all of her life by silence and secrets. After the death of her mother in childbirth, Bridie and her sister Mary are cared for by their maternal aunt, Kit—herself just a girl—and a fierce and superstitious grandmother. When Granny Byrne dies the two girls are taken away from their Aunty Kit and brought to live in the convent as charity cases of the church. Their father, the beautiful, music-loving and often drunk Connor O’Brian, is forbidden to see them and they lose contact with him forever. The two little girls remain in the convent until Kit herself marries some years later and they go to live with her and her husband in Burleigh Heads, Queensland. Mary, who has little in common with her sister, plans to enter the church as a nun.
When, during the Great Depression, Bridie falls pregnant to the hard-working but emotionally unavailable Jack Bowden, her already narrow options diminish even further, but she marries him anyway and ‘just gets on with it’ in the small house that Jack builds on the isolated hills of Sweetmans Road in northern N.S.W. Jack is a good and hard-working man but uncommunicative and unavailable to her for emotional nourishment. Her Aunty Kit, whom she now rarely sees, is her one great ally and the object of Bridie’s unconditional love.
Bridie is a woman of her time. She quietly longs for love, laughter and fulfilment but her circumstances offer her none of these. Her yearning is silent and even she is unable to identify what it is she longs for. She is resilient, dutiful and ultimately powerless.
As her three children—Danny, 15, Louise, 13 and Maddie, 10—grow up, Bridie becomes increasingly restless. She broaches the possibility of getting a job of some sort but Jack forbids this on the grounds that it would shame him to have his wife go out to work.
By chance, Bridie meets Jacob Elliot, a reclusive artist who lives in one of the timber huts up the top of Sweetmans Road. Jacob is a returned soldier who has his own secret history and recognises the unspoken yearning in Bridie Bowden. They succumb to a passionate affair in which Bridie discovers what true love feels like but both know that this relationship has nowhere to go. Jacob eventually decides to leave the district rather than disrupt Bridie’s life with her husband and children.
Twenty years later, Bridie is a widow and the lure of their hometown has brought all the Bowden offspring back to live in the district where they grew up. It is then the revelation of one stunning gesture by the long lost Jacob Elliot that changes the course of Bridie’s life and puts her within reach of fulfilment at last.