It is about a number of refugees aboard a boat, called Star of the Sea, who are escaping from 1840s famine-stricken Ireland.
This novel provides examples of:
- Abusive Parents: David Merredith's father.
- Arranged Marriage: David Merredith is predisposed to women of his own class only.
- Charles Dickens: He makes an appearance in the novel, and the writing itself has a certain Dickensian air.
- Crapsack World: Starvation, disease, evictions and violence are rampant, and nobody cares.
- Dead Person Impersonation: Pius Mulvey, crippled and unemployable, kills a schoolteacher in order to take his job and survive.
- Great Escape: Pius brutally murders a prison guard in order to escape from a London Jail.
- Irish Priest: Nicholas, Pius's brother, becomes one of these.
- Shoot the Shaggy Dog: A few lucky characters make new lives for themselves in America, but the majority die or are condemned to poverty in the slums of New York. The story concludes shortly before the Easter Rising, suggesting all the suffering did was to trigger and fuel several years of war.
- Tangled Family Tree: Supposedly with the Merredith and the Mulvey families.