When Marie's grandmother dies and leaves a suitcase full of paintings Marie is thrust into a world that pre-dates her grandmother, Margaret. She believes it's possible that Margaret may not have had the same father as her siblings and Marie's search for her true lineage leads her to question the importance of family.
Mary Bell returns in a sequel to Scarlet Runner. The aftermath of the Waihi gold strike sees her teaching music in Auckland but still grieving for the fiance she lost in 1912. The outbreak of the Great War provides an opportunity for Mary to cast aside her grief and she serves as a volunteer nurse initially consigned to Belgium. A series of events lead her to abscond from the horrors of Ypres traveling first to Russia and then to Paris, her nursing days buried under her new love - art. Mary meets the formative avant-garde artists of the day starting with Franz Marc, co-founder of the expressionist group The Blue Rider. Mary's associations with Malevich, Kandinsky, Chagall, Modigliani, Picasso and Klee provide Marie with ample material to fuel her fantasy that her great-grandfather could have been one of these famous artists.
Garrick, a former Waihi miner and confidante of Mary enters the war in France as a tunneler. He is frustrated that the war is two years old before he is called up. Garrick relays news of Mary's younger brother Percy's infantry exploits through Gallipoli, the Somme, Messines and then at Arras where he was deployed to assist in building the biggest tunnel system in France.
Garrick and Mary meet away from the Western Front. Garrick's love for Mary is plain and honest, but her world and the ghosts that walk with her threaten to keep her from him.
As Marie puzzles over the paintings and pieces together the past reading letters found in an old shoebox she is haunted by her perceived failure at motherhood and encouraged to establish contact with her estranged son. The painful realisation that she is making history repeat itself pries open her heavy heart. There is a light, however, in Anthony, Margaret's next door neighbour who tackles the mystery of the paintings in a much more pragmatic manner.
The strands within the story are beautifully woven together and yet each painting narrative could stand alone. The reader is swept along on Marie's journey while losing herself in the exotic stories of Mary, just as Marie does.