White South African professor David Lurie seems to have settled into a disciplined, if unremarkable, way of life, which he claims meets his financial and emotional needs. Even the problem of sex has been addressed in a rational manner, with regular Thursday visits courtesy of Discreet Escorts and the exotic, if not effusive, Soraya. But when Soraya leaves, the first cracks begin to appear in David’s veneer of self-control; he hires a private detective to track the woman down. She refuses any further contact with him.
Bored and unfulfilled, David sets about seducing a student in his Romantics Class. He is clearly in thrall to her youth and beauty, but Melanie appears passive and uninterested. Although she does not resist sex with him, it is also clear she does not give consent. The affair is doomed from the beginning, and David soon finds himself hauled up before a university committee of inquiry. Although he pleads guilty to the charges levelled against him, an admission of guilt isn’t sufficient. In the university, as in the new South Africa, the guilty are expected to atone for their sins.
When David refuses to issue a public statement of contrition, his fate is sealed and he sets off for the Eastern Cape, hoping to find sanctuary on his daughter’s farm. There, he plans to spend some time working on a chamber opera about Byron’s time in Italy. But he soon finds himself drawn into the very different country lifestyle. At Lucy’s behest, he starts to help Bev Shaw at the animal welfare clinic, a last refuge for unwanted animals.
Events soon take a much darker turn: David and Lucy suffer a violent attack at the hands of three black men. When David tries to intercede, one of the men attacks him with methylated spirits, singing his scalp and eyes in the process. Powerless to protect his daughter, all his knowledge of language, poetry and art rendered useless, David cowers in a locked toilet as Lucy is raped. The men use David’s car to make their escape, with his Byron papers still in the boot.
After the attack, David and Lucy find their already fractured relationship worsens as father and daughter struggle to communicate. While David is eager for the men to be caught and punished, Lucy refuses to report the rape to the police. David thinks her decision springs from a misguided sense of guilt about the sufferings of the black population during the Apartheid era. He suspects Lucy's former gardener and neighbour, Petrus, of being involved, a belief which deepens when he sees one of the attackers at a party at Petrus' house. Unable to convince Lucy to take action, he initially seeks comfort in an unlikely affair with Bev before heading back to Cape Town.
The events at the farm have brought about a shift in his attitude toward Melanie, and after an uncomfortable dinner with her family he apologises for his behaviour. Despite the apology, David struggles to settle back into life in Cape Town and, after hearing news of a development with Lucy, he returns to the farm: Lucy is pregnant as a result of the rape.
Lucy is determined to keep the baby. David is unhappy about her decision but he resigns himself to it, vowing to stick around at least until the birth. With the last of his money he rents a room in Grahamstown and buys a truck for disposing of the corpses of unwanted dogs.