Meanwhile, Norma's own life should be counted as one of the missing. She lives alone in an apartment with two dusty, dying houseplants. Her husband Rey, a botanist fascinated by plants with psychoactive properties, was also (unknown to her) a collaborator with the insurgency. He is one of the vanished.
One Tuesday morning Norma's solitude is broken by the arrival of Victor, a young boy who is "slender and fragile" with "eyes too small for his face." He has traveled to the capital from a remote village called 1797. (Since the war, the government has replaced all city names with numbers: odd numbers indicate a river or mountain nearby, and the higher the final digit the smaller the hamlet.)
The purpose of Victor's journey is to bring Norma a list of the names of those missing from his town. But as it happens, his town is the one Rey used to visit as he hunted for plants.
The novel's action glides from city to village, from present to past, and from one narrator to another. Norma relives her story with Rey; Rey recollects both his travels in the jungle and the torture he underwent as punishment by the government; and other voices fill in events in Victor's village.
Meanwhile, all around these characters swirls the subdued, truncated life of this country, marked most strikingly by what it has lost. In the city, "There were soldiers on every other corner.... Pedestrians moved chaotically between the featureless, modern buildings, beneath a clouded sky that threatened to clear. Taxis honked, vendors shouted, police whistles squealed."
There are those who recall, however, that once, "There were parks of olive trees and lemon trees planted in rows, flower beds bursting with flowers of alarming colors, shady places for napping on a spread blanket, places where couples might stroll, hand in hand, and discuss in whispers all manner of personal things. This, too, the war would bring to an end."