David Lurie is a South African professor of English who loses everything: his reputation, his job, his peace of mind, his good looks, his dreams of artistic success, and finally even his ability to protect his own daughter. He is twice-divorced and dissatisfied with his job as a 'communications' lecturer, teaching one class in romantic literature at a technical university in Cape Town in post-apartheid South Africa. His "disgrace" comes when he almost forcibly seduces one of his more vulnerable students, a girl named Melanie Isaacs. This affair is thereafter revealed to the school and a committee is convened to pass judgement on his actions. David refuses to apologize in any sincere form and so is forced to resign from his post. Lurie is working on a play concerning Lord Byron's final phase of life in Italy which mirrors his own life in that Byron is living a life of hedonism and excess and is having an affair with a married woman, and "the irony is that he comes to grief from an escapade that Byron would have thought distinctly timid."
He is dismissed from his teaching position, after which he takes refuge on his daughter's farm in the Eastern Cape. For a time, his daughter's influence and natural rhythms of the farm promise to harmonise his discordant life. But the balance of power in the country is shifting. Shortly after becoming comfortable with rural life, he is forced to come to terms with the aftermath of an attack on the farm in which his daughter is raped and impregnated and he is violently assaulted. The novel also concerns David's interaction with a few other characters – Bev, an animal welfare and healer of sorts, and Lucy's former farmhand Petrus, the self-described "dog-man" who lives on the neighbouring property, who took care of his daughter's dogs. David remains on the farm far past his welcome in order to try to keep his daughter safe, but instead finds himself apathetic and demoralized yet on a journey towards redemption.