In 2000, Geologist Lewis Renouf was beaten up and left for dead in the Peruvian rainforest. He was trying to investigate the disappearance of his father on a expedition to excavate human remains, about twenty years before. On gaining consciousness, the only way he could get back to the town where he last saw his young daughter was to run alongside a gas pipeline for three days. During his journey he revisits both his own time on the expedition when he was a boy and considers the cyclical nature of both human life and the rock strata that he investigates. Delirious and exhausted, he collapses short of the town. His daughter, Joanna, pieces together the whole story of the original expedition, the mystery of her grandfather’s disappearance and together with Tamsin, a Biologist based at a new gas drilling station, seeks justice. They are thwarted by an indifferent police force and her grandfather’s murderer who is still at large. The reader is taken on an ever quickening journey of discovery which ultimately ends with revenge from an unlikely source.
Although on the surface an adventurous detective story, this novel is an allegorical narrative investigating different scientific theories about human evolution. Just as there is a literal search for human fossils, there is also a search for truth buried in the partial memory of a lost father and the search for the main characters own identity. The structure of the book reflects the strata of rock, with the story being told through a mixture of past and present events and the thoughts of the main character, as he gradually starts to lose his own identity, interweave the two. To find out what has happened in the past, Lewis must metaphorically dig through the layers. The novel starts with a funeral and this gives an air of foreboding to much of the early writing. Once Lewis and Jo have escaped from their past and, later, literally, from his pursuers, there is a lighter tone but there is always an element of helplessness felt by two ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
Lyell and Cuvier proposed two contrasting theories of evolution at the beginning of the 1800s. The plot of the story mirrors this duality. Differences of opinion cause friction and then the events befalling Lewis highlight the two opposing concepts of slow uniformitarian change on the one hand and dynamic, fast – moving evolution by catastrophe and revolution on the other.