In the book Chatwin develops his thesis about the primordial nature of Aboriginal song. The writing does not shy away from the actual condition of life for present day indigenous Australians, it does not present the songlines as a new-age fad but from an appreciation of the art and culture of the people for whom they are the keystone of the Real. While the book's first half chronicles the main character's travels through Outback Australia and his various encounters, the second half is dedicated to his musings on the nature of man as nomad and city builder.
Sometimes defined as a travelogue, the text has been criticised for being masculist, colonialist, simplistic and therefore unreliable as both a source on European Australians and Aboriginal culture. Other critics have praised it, and Chatwin in the book is vehemently opposed to the image of the inferiority of the Aboriginals; others also see the author as a proponent of postmodern writing, challenging traditional forms of linear narrative. The second half of this book argues that we are still in a transition period between an original nomadic culture and a settled, agrarian one. Why are some people restless and always ready to move on, whereas others never stir more than a few miles from where they grew up? Evolutionarily this might be about a genetic predisposition to move on versus a gradual loss of this urge in settled peoples, or it might just be a strategy to spread a species around the globe quickly.