In the tropical Mexican town of San Jacinto, an English boy grows up in an isolated household. His parents are a distant presence, and he is looked after by the dutiful housekeeper Dona Constanza. His only friend is the gardener's son Chayo, an illiterate boy his own age who becomes a virtual brother. Against the growing resistance of his parents, the young narrator teaches Chayo to read, and imbibes from him in turn the exotic mysteries of Mexican culture. As the two boys grow into adolescence the narrator's love for his friend becomes obsessive and frustrated. Chayo is confused and the narrator is relentless, but their differing social and cultural backgrounds conspire to pull them apart, and their emotional entanglement spirals towards a devastating denouement.