It is 1938. A corpse is found in a peat bog in Schleswig-Holstein, a tiny but hotly contested fragment of Europe's coastal landscape between Germany and Denmark. The body is that of a nineteenth-century soldier bent double underneath his coat - a disquieting reminder of old ferocious battles just when a new world war is about to begin.
Three men - a Danish policeman, a young German-Jewish refugee and a German professor - venture out into the quagmire to find clues to the mummified soldier's identity. Soon afterwards, the professor disappears.
It is the year 2000. Esmé Olsen, a cleaner in the Institute for Historical Studies in Copenhagen, stumbles upon documents concerning the find in the bog while cleaning up after a party. A quirky amateur historian, she can't resist 'borrowing' the documents to read. Thus begins a many-layered journey into the past, both real and imagined. Esmé's childhood, her relationship with her eccentric father, the particular opulence of 1960s American automobiles, a packet of letters to the writer J.D. Salinger, the young soldier's drunken rape and the discovery of the German professor's body down a well are subtly interwoven to create a multivalent tale of mystery, memory and remembrance.