Backwaters tells the story of Tom Lakeman at three crucial times and places in his life. In the first part, Tom is at primary school. His troubled father abandons the family and Tom himself commits a minor act of thieving that indirectly leads to the accidental death of another boy, his friend Stephen, the child of Italian migrants and the target of a bullying nun. Tom believes that if he had owned up to the theft, Stephen would still be alive.
As an adult, he discovers that the ripples of childhood spread far into adulthood and envelop him in ways he’d never imagined possible. In the second part, Tom is now a schoolteacher with a wife and young family. He has been troubled all his life by his father’s disappearance, and by the events surrounding that disappearance. He is drawn to Christine, a lonely teaching colleague. They take a party of boys to a local swimming hole, leave their charges for a time to make love, and learn later that a boy has drowned. What follows is an echo of Stephen’s death, and Tom feels the whole world closing in on him.
In the novel’s final section, Tom and his wife and children drive to a beach house for the summer. This is a period of reassessment for him — he puts some ghosts to rest, and with the help of his strong and loving wife he begins to discover that it is possible to unshackle yourself from the past.
Backwaters is a novel about love and loss, and of betrayal and redemption. It ultimately shows that there is a way back from tragedy.