In an old fairy story Panina Manina, a trapeze artist, falls and breaks her neck. As the ringmaster bends over her he notices an amulet of amber around her neck, the same trinket he had given his own lost child, swept away in a torrent some sixteen years earlier.
The theme of a father finding a long-lost daughter runs through this novel which is told by Petter, a precocious child and fantasist - a Norwegian Billy Liar. Petter's magical interior world contains Metre Man, a midget with a green felt cap and a bamboo cane; Metre Man runs his life and urges him to do things.
As an adult, Petter's incredible imagination leads him to become a ghost writer known only as The Spider but he become involves in a sequence of literary deceits which are brought to a head at the Bologna Bookfair at the same time as events conspire to bring him face to face with his own long-lost daughter.