Chris, a lonely pharmaceutical salesman "young enough to feel young, but old enough to feel left out," is bored with his wife and conventional life. During a momentary loss of self-control, he has a chance encounter with a young Serbian woman called Roza, whom he initially mistakes for a prostitute.
Some weeks after giving her a lift home, he succumbs to the urge to respond to a casual invitation to "come for coffee some time." As they listen to the "Bob Dylan upstairs" and chat in front of the gas fire, Chris gazes at enormous holes in the plaster and exposed wiring -- "that maroon-coloured plaited stuff that must have predated the war." It's the seventies, and he's thinking wryly about the passing fads of youth he has already witnessed. "The only thing more pitiful than a middle-aged punk is a white Rastafarian."
Host and guest descend to the basement, past gaps in the floorboards and a missing stair. Roza makes coffee on an ancient cooker streaked with "solidified splotches of antediluvian fat." She begins to relate her past, interspersing its violence and pathos with vicious twists of humour.
Chris listens, nursing a forlorn hope that they will make love. But Roza offers only coffee and stories, beginning with her early life as a partisan's daughter and her education as a good communist. Deliberately perhaps, she confuses him with her trials as an illegal immigrant in London, being a "bad girl" and working as a "hostess."
"I don't exist," she explains, then casually describes the Archway factions, who "truly despised each other." At the meetings of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the Communist Party of Great Britain, the International Marxist Group and more, says Roza, "everyone knew that half of the people at the meetings were from the British secret services...just spying on each other."
Back in Yugoslavia, her partisan father originally fought for the royalist faction. He "didn't give a damn about the King," but liked the drills and polishing. He "defected to the communists when he was supposed to be taking part in an attack on them." When Roza lists the groups she hates, Chris is shocked. He disapproves of hatred, as "unmanageable;" it "takes up too much emotion."
As Roza's tales grow darker, Chris grows ever more obsessed. While his own daughter grows into a teenager, he listens to the partisan's daughter, despises his own life for being normal and boring, and thinks, "You can be ignorant and stupid and go through your whole life without encountering any evidence against the hypothesis that you're a genius." Still, he wonders how much of what Roza relates is true, and speculates about her motives for playing him the way she does.
Speaking as a Serb, Roza says, "we get depressed, drink slivovica, and try to kill ourselves with cigarettes." In a black mood, she expresses impatience with her mother's Old Testament religion. She "can take it when some politician says we've got to go out and kill people," but God "ought to know better."
As Roza's stories wind down, she finally exposes her deep wounds to Chris. He feels jealous as she expresses her regret that she left a man who loved her because "I didn't feel good enough...I wouldn't be able to accept anyone who was stupid enough to accept me." But after this visit, she sends her friend away with hope, saying she has something special to tell him next time they meet.
A week later, Chris, who usually avoids alcohol because he hates "the feeling of being out of control," shows up at Roza's door in the middle of the night, drunk on Greek brandy.
Much later, as a widower remembering his middle-aged attempt at adventure, Chris shows a humorous combination of spite and insight. He recalls how his old flame would kiss him on both cheeks, something the British didn't do back then, though "everyone's gone Continental now, and you even kiss your mortal enemy." And he compares Roza to a Labour politician of the time, "a toff who approved of the common people as long as she didn't have to mix with them."
As for himself, he reports that though he misses his wife now that she'd dead, he's "still the kind of man who doesn't go to prostitutes." He would love to spend more time with his grown daughter, but he does not want to be a burden on her. As for Roza, he still "can't work out why she chose" him in the first place. Why, he wonders, "did she take it as a matter of course that she was entitled to appropriate" his life and "waste it?" He's still not certain of the meaning of the note Roza left him, the only memento he has of their time together, but he has a glimmering, at last.
Louis De Bernieres has expressed the very different voices of the two solitary individuals: both Chris and Roza sound sure sure and true.
(Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2008)