The major theme of the book is war, and its detrimental and lingering effects. The devastating civil war in the unnamed country has resulted in the formation of a totalitarian government which is determined to rigidly control every aspect of the lives of its people, and is ruthless towards any opposition. With the portrayal of overwhelming power and oppression on part of the government, the novel resembles famous dystopian novels of the past, such as George Orwell's 1984. However, the picture is less of the overall state than of individual lives. The novel is concerned with how war affects intimate human relationships, most poignantly in the case of the main protagonist Norma, whose husband Ray has disappeared. War causes disruption and separation in the lives of ordinary people, both physical and emotional. It leaves lasting scars and serves no useful purpose. Indeed, the essential meaninglessness of national conflict is underlined by the fact that people can not now even remember why and how the civil war began.
Another important theme is that of memory, which is emphasized in the main plot. Norma, in her capacity as radio show host comes into contact with people who have lost family and friends in and after the war, and who are seeking reunion with them. These are the disappeared, lost to the bitter conflict, whose very memory the government attempts to suppress, to wipe from the face of the earth. However, the official actions of even such a brutal government cannot altogether negate personal loves and loyalties. The disappeared persist in the memory of their loved ones. Personal relationships remain all-important. Painful memories are also awakened in Norma, as she remembers her past life with her husband.
A third theme of the novel is the contrast between life in small, remote communities and life in the big city where Norma works. The narrative very often shifts from one to the other, from city to the village re-designated '1797' by the government as part of its overall drive to eradicate old ways of life in the country, old traditions, beliefs, and above all languages.