Half-sisters Hal and Una Gwithiam are suddenly withdrawn from their expensive British boarding school by their diplomat father who requires them to join him in India. The younger sister Hal (short for Halcyon) is delighted to leave school but Una, who excels at her studies wants to stay and take a maths exam.
Arriving in India, the sisters are met by Alix, the glamorous Eurasian governess their father has hired to teach them. The prickly Una, furious at her father and feeling that, at fifteen, she is far too old for a governess soon discovers that Alix is not competent to teach her maths at the level she requires.
Alix attempts to become friends with the girls, arranging riding lessons and social evenings for them but is continually rebuffed as the sisters gradually become aware that their presence in India is only required to make their father's relationship with the governess appear respectable.
Jealous of Alix, resentful of her father and missing 'Crackers' her former headmistress and the only mother figure she has ever had, Una begins to take refuge in an old summer house at the bottom of their exotic garden where she meets the handsome young Indian gardener who is also a poet and he helps her to forget about her maths.
Godden excels at coming-of-age stories and is not coy about providing the physical details of nausea, menses and sexual awakening. She also provides characters with depth. Una at times is stroppy and headstrong and Alix is possibly one of the worst step-mothers-to-be ever created in fiction, yet when Una desperately needs someone on her side it is Alix who finally roots for her.