Jessamy “Jess” Harrison is eight years old. Sensitive, whimsical, possessed of an extraordinary and powerful imagination, she spends hours writing haiku, reading Shakespeare, or simply hiding in the dark warmth of the airing cupboard. As the child of an English father and a Nigerian mother, Jess just can’t shake off the feeling of being alone wherever she goes, and the other kids in her class are wary of her tendency to succumb to terrified fits of screaming. Believing that a change from her English environment might be the perfect antidote to Jess’s alarming mood swings, her parents whisk her off to Nigeria for the first time where she meets her mother’s family—including her formidable grandfather.
Jess’s adjustment to Nigeria is only beginning when she encounters Titiola, or TillyTilly, a ragged little girl her own age. To Jess, it seems that, at last, she has found someone who will understand her. But gradually, TillyTilly’s visits become more disturbing, making Jess start to realize that she doesn’t know who TillyTilly is at all.