The novel is a split-narrative that details events in 1936 and 1952 and the effect these have on a small group of families in Hayden County, Kentucky. The stories revolve around sisters Sarah and Juna in 1936; as well as Annie and Caroline bought up as daughters of Sarah in 1952, although it quickly becomes apparent that Annie is not Sarah's daughter. From the time Juna was born she was thought to be evil and everyone was uneasy around her. Annie has the same black eyes as Juna and although she isn’t tarnished with the same suspicion; she isn't quite accepted either.
The book opens in 1952 on the eve of Annie Holleran ascending into "womanhood", which occurs on the night half way between a girl's fifteenth and sixteenth birthdays. It is an event taken very seriously by the girls of Hayden County and their families.
On this night they curl their hair, put on their best nightgown and, often accompanied by other members of the family, look into the nearest well on the stroke of midnight to see the face of the man they will marry. This seems to be the accepted way of finding a husband.
The nearest well to the Holleran farm belongs to the Baines but there is hatred between the families which is the result of accusations made by Aunt Juna which resulted in Joseph Carl Baines being hanged. Annie determines that she will risk going there but her visit isn't quite how she imagined.
Hayden County seems to have changed little between 1936 and 1952 apart from a difference in the crops grown by the Hollerans but gradually the truth of events is revealed.
Inspired by the true story of the last lawful public hanging in the United Stated it is fairly evenly paced, if at times somewhat languorous, as though the scent of the lavender that the Hollerans now farm, has pervaded the story.
Roy’s narrative is deeply atmospheric, almost transforming the tale into a gothic novel; mysterious and at times chilling which though beautifully written, though may not appeal to everyone.