Fly Away Peter is an Australian novel set before and during the First World War. The first part of the novel is set on the Queensland Gold Coast, and the second part on the Western Front.
The central character of the novel is Jim Saddler, a self-contained young man with a profound understanding of the bird life of an estuary near his home. Ashley Crowther has recently inherited the farm which includes the estuary; despite the divide of class and experience, the two young men form a close bond when Ashley offers Jim a job as a warden, recording the comings and goings of birds in their 'sanctuary'. Jim also befriends Imogen, an older woman whose photography captures the beauty of the birds in the sanctuary; in particular the Sandpiper. This is an idyllic world of Sandpipers, plovers and ibises, but not without the seeds of change and disturbance.
When the First World War breaks out, Jim feels obliged to join up, and travels to the Western Front, where his unique and sensitive perception gives the reader a window to the horrific experience of trench warfare. Malouf's description of the all-consuming 'system' of war and the gruesome realities of living and dying at the front are gut-wrenching in their detail. After an uneventful arrival at the front, a shell lands unexpectedly among Jim's friends behind the lines. Jim is coated by the blood of his friend Clancy, who is blown out of existence. Subsequently a young recruit Eric loses both legs.
Jim sees many other friends die. He crosses paths with Ashley, who is an officer in a different division. He confronts his own sense of violence when assaulted by another man, Wizzer, who later dies in a shell-hole. He also sees the local farming communities trying to keep making their livelihood amid the mayhem, including an old man planting in the dirt of a blasted wood. Jim begins again to make a record of the crows as their barely interrupted migration patterns continue above the front.
At the end of the novel, the reader enter Jim's subjectivity as he goes 'over the top' in an attack, is wounded and dies of his wounds. His exact point of death is not made explicit; his journey out of life is dream-like and poetic.
On the Queensland coast Imogen grieves Jim's death, and reflects on the meaningless but beautiful continuity of life.