Jake is fired from his job and is satisfied with the unemployment benefit, spending most days getting drunk at the local pub with his friends, singing songs and savagely beating any patron whom he considers to have stepped out of line. He often invites crowds of friends back from the bar to his home for drunken parties. His wife "gets lippy" at one of his parties and he brutally attacks her in front of their friends. Beth turns to drink when things go wrong, with angry outbursts and occasional violence on a much smaller scale. Her children fend for themselves, resignedly cleaning the blood-streaked house after her beating.
Nig, the Heke’s eldest son, moves out to join a gang whose rituals include facial tattoos (in Māori culture called Tā moko). This usually shows the heritage of the person; in Nig’s case, he shows only the heritage of his mother, with the Moko located on only one side of his face. He is subjected to an inititation beating by the gang members, but then embraced as a new brother and later sports the gang’s tattoos. Nig cares about his siblings, but despises his father. He is angered when his mother is beaten, but deals with it by walking away.
The second son, Mark "Boogie" Heke has a history of minor criminal offences and is taken from his family and placed in a foster home as a ward of the state due to the situation with his parents. Despite his initial anger, Boogie finds a new niche for himself, as the foster home’s manager Mr. Bennett helps him embrace his Māori heritage. Jake does not care that Boogie is taken away; he comments that it will do him some good, to toughen him up a bit. Beth is heartbroken, and scrapes money together to visit him. Jake pays for the rental car from gambling winnings, but deserts the family to go to the pub and they never make the journey.
Grace, the Heke’s 13-year-old daughter, loves writing stories. Her best friend is a homeless boy named Toot who lives in a wrecked car. She despises the future she believes is inevitable and is constantly reminded of getting married and playing the role of the wife, which she believes is catering to one’s husband’s demands and taking beatings. She dreams of leaving and being independent and single.
Grace is raped in her bed by her father’s friend "Uncle Bully" who tells her that it is her fault for "turning him on" by wearing her "skimpy little nighty". She becomes depressed. She tries to go to her friend Toot for support, smoking her first dope. Toot kisses her, but she reacts violently and storms out, believing him to be "just like the rest of them". After wandering through the city streets, Grace comes home to an angry Jake with his friends. Bully asks for a goodnight kiss in