After a family tragedy, Theodore De'Ath moves to Otago to live with his grandparents. He becomes fascinated by the Underworld, reading the Inferno, Paradise Lost and Faust. When war breaks out in Europe, unlike his peers, Theodore is not swept up with the fervour to enlist, but when conscription comes in 1916 he is obliged to join the New Zealand Division in France. Although expert on Hell in literature, it is not until confronted with the reality of war that he understands its true meaning. Soon he has to survive as a deserter, risking court martial and a death sentence. The Life of De'Ath draws on historical events: New Zealand military involvement at the Western front, anti-German sentiment during World War I, and the New Zealand soldiers who were shot for desertion between 1916 and 1918. At its heart, though, is the story of a young man going against the tide of social and family pressure, and struggling to express his feelings for Elizabeth Paterson before it's too late.