Jacob de Vries, arrives from Holland with his wife, Cristeen, and daughter, Katja, to a remote part of East Anglia to undertake the drainage of the swamps and meres of Oxay Fen. In doing so he is unaware of walking into a mêlée arousing political passions which divide the community.
The great project ahead – in continuing the work of Vermuyden forty years earlier – in transforming an ancient landscape and way of life, is financed by the landowners, led by John Warburton. But the village people see this as the theft of their fowl, fish, and eels, and their very livelihood, and are determined to oppose those who call for change.
For John Warburton and his friends, the work is essential for the recovery of what they regard as theirs. The prize is the realisation of fine pasture and rich fields. In this situation a drama is played out involving night raids, arson, and the suspicion of witchcraft, and the tension is not subdued by the arrival of the militia.
Foremost in the resistance is Clara, the fearsome blacksmith, who gains an unexpected ally in Emms, the vicar, the latter who refuses to reject the evidence of his own eyes as ancient artefacts and even a body emerge from the diggings. Another dissident is John Sylam, a childhood friend of Clara, and then one of the drainage partners begins to doubt the wisdom of the venture, and fears the effect it may have on the wider community.
Kayja, too, has her different problems, as her heart is perturbed by several young men in the neighbourhood, and then a skating disaster and nature takes its own revenge in a devastating climax.
This is a magnificently poetic and atmospheric novel describing the fens and fenland life in the 1690s. The authenticity of the tale is brought alive by the descriptions of the environment with its mists and distant horizons, its characters and their dialogue, in a way which few historical novels are able to match.