In Malaysia, on a certain beach, with sand the color of cream, giant turtles come to nest each year. They come by moonlight, heaving and sighing and digging, "flinging sand in the air with hind limbs that could strike off a human leg with one flick." And, when their work is done, when they have hidden their eggs and smoothed the sand back into place, they crawl off again, vanishing into the wild seas.

Australian writer Blanche d'Alpuget has titled her novel for this beach and, certainly, the specter of these giant turtles looms large across its pages. Her story contains the same mystery and dark drama as the turtle nestling rite--and the same sense of futility, too: after those great beasts have trudged back into the sea, Malay villagers rush out to dig up most of the eggs to eat or to sell.

But d'Alpuget's real story is not about the turtles. Instead, there is a different kind of immigration process taking place on the Malaysian beach. And the new arrivals are both more desperate and less tolerated than the giant turtles. It is 1979 and boatload after boatload of refugees is arriving at Turtle Beach, fleeing the new regime in Vietnam.

Judith Wilkes, an Australian journalist, has wangled an assignment to go and report on the plight of the boat people in Malaysia. She has been to Malaysia once before--in 1969, she was asked to cut her honeymoon short to cover the riots in Kuala Lumpur. What she experienced then changed her life and the whole course of her marriage. Now, 10 years later, not exactly sure why she was so compelled to return to Malaysia, here she is, plunged not only into the refugee crisis, but a few personal crises as well.

In Kuala Lumpur, Judith stays, at first, with Ralph and Sancha Hamilton. Sancha is an old school chum and Ralph, conveniently for Judith, is a senior immigration official, a valuable contact for her refugee story. It becames apparent fast that all is not well in the Hamilton household. Judith hears Ralph and Sancha quibble over small things--Sancha's driving, a missing hairbrush. She sees Ralph double over with pain from a colitis attack. And later, as Judith watches, Sancha uses a golfing iron to hack a cobra to death. Even after the animal is obviously dead, Sancha continues to strike until she is "splattered with blood and yellow-green guts . . . like a child's watercolor flung about in a tantrum."

In the Australian Residence, where Judith stays next, domestic life with the ambassador, Sir Adrian Hobday, and his wife is outwardly more serene, but complicated nonetheless. Lady Hobday is a young and beautiful Vietnamese refugee named Minou. She is alternately kittenish and tigerish, doll-like and dangerous. Minou has a special fascination with the Turtle Beach. She hides her car in the shrubbery and camps there for days at a time, watching the sea. Eventually, Judith learns why: Minou has left her three young sons and her mother behind in Vietnam and she is waiting for theirs to be the next boat on the horizon.

In the course of her stay in Malaysia, Judith gets a firsthand look at a party put on by modern royalty--designer dreses, warm wine and barefoot waiters. She is taken to a Tamil religious festival and watches, horrified, as the worshipers drive spears into their own skin. She meets, and is powerfully attracted to, a dark, handsome man named Kanan, a professor of philosophy whose life is guided by a set of rules that Judith will never fully understand. What she does understand, finally, is that this trip to Malaysia was based on a need to get away from all of her own rules for a while. In the chaos of this country, Judith finds the courage to make certain decisions that she has been trying to make for the past 10 years.

Blanche d'Alpuget has won several prestigious awards for this novel, which was first published abroad in 1981. She is a strong writer with a particularly sharp sense of character. In a few deft behind-the-scene scenes, we get a good look right into the souls of the people in this book. She shows us Minou, for instance, alone in her room, throwing her I Ching coins. When she doesn't like the answers they hold, she cheats and tosses again. And, in another scene, we watch as Kanan, lying next to a sleeping Judith, lifts her arm, "stealthily, looking at the oatmeal colour of her skin against his. Never mind what the Aryans said. Frankly, his color was more beautiful, he thought."

There are a lot of characters to keep track of in this book, a lot of small stories to follow. For the most part, d'Alpuget does a fine job of sorting them all out for us. But she has the irritating habit of plunging us into the middle of new scenes and leaving us there, scrambling, for a while before she backtracks to let us in on the beginnings. The effect of this technique is probably meant to be dramatic, but it is merely disorienting. Here and there, we have this dizzy feeling that the pages may have been spliced in the wrong order.

Still, d'Alpuget won't lose many readers along the way. The sheer force of her story is enough to sweep us along to the end. And it's well worth the trip. The final scenes on Turtle Beach are powerful and haunting. Blanche d'Alpuget makes us understand they were inevitable as well. In the end, we know that the drama that has unfolded around her characters was as preordained as the first throws of Minou's I Ching, as unstoppable as those great turtles lumbering across the pale sand at midnight.