The premise of this short, intense novel is a hearing into the cause of the death of Alistair Cawdor, a suicide. Several people—K. M. MacDonnell, Saliba, Tim Dalwood, Osana, and Benoni—give their respective retrospective accounts of the last days of Cawdor’s life; Cawdor is, in a sense, able to participate after the fact in this account through the characters’ recollections of his words and actions and through passages from his journal. The Assistant District Officer, Mr. J. G. Browne, oversees the inquiry.
The last days of Cawdor’s life are spent on a trip that begins Visitants, a journey by boat to the island of Kailuana, ostensibly to conduct a census of the natives but in reality to attempt to determine if a native uprising is about to occur. The old native chief, Dipapa, does not want his reign to be continued by Benoni, his nephew and heir, a native educated in white schools. Metusela, a former rebellion leader, has returned at the instigation of Dipapa to lead a native uprising to turn the natives away from the ways of the whites.
Rumors abound among the natives of visitants from afar, this time of “star people” who have come to them. Having had sufficient visitants from the distant world of European civilization to be considered a cargo-cult culture, the natives are not so moved by the idea of star people as is Cawdor, to whom such a possibility represents hope. When Cawdor realizes that the star people are really non-existent, that the missing natives have down-to-earth explanations, he loses hope. Having lost everything else—his wife, his father, his friend, and finally his position—Cawdor kills himself.