An audacious and deeply moving meditation in fictional form on such essential matters as freedom and identity, explored in a series of conversations and recollections. Most of the conversations take place between two men, one a career soldier sent to oversee an execution, the other the stoic outlaw about to be hanged. Malouf, an Australian writer, has, over the course of eight previous novels (including Remembering Babylon, 1993, and The Great World, 1991) developed a supple, precise prose style and a great talent for revealing the philosophical underpinnings of dramatic events. This new work, set in Australia in 1827, in the dusty outback of New South Wales, once again rings some startling changes on a grim situation. Carney, the outlaw, is the only one of a group of ``bushrangers'' to be taken alive. An Irishman and ex-convict, he grudgingly begins to talk about his hard, harassed life as the soldier, Michael Adair, questions him about the gang. Adair, also Irish, is gradually moved to a recognition of Carney's fierce, if inchoate, devotion to freedom, and stirred to reflect on the ways in which need and fear can shape our lives. Adair, orphaned as an infant, raised by a friend of his mother's on a great estate, nurses sharp guilts and regrets about his own past. As Adair and Carney spend the long night before his execution talking, sharing confidences, the tough young soldiers accompanying Adair tell a variety of tales, some profane, some troubling, about their own lives. The execution goes off as planned, but Adair, a deeply meditative man, and a convincingly good one, is profoundly altered by the event. Using material that might have been merely gaudy or melodramatic in less skilled hands, Malouf has shaped a terse, intelligent, resonant meditation on life and loss, again demonstrating that he's one of the brightest and most original of contemporary novelists.