Quoyle, a thirty-six year old newspaper reporter from New York state, decides to move to Newfoundland to escape his emotionally traumatic life. His parents, who never cared for him much to begin with, have committed suicide, and his cruel, two-timing wife, Petal has died in a car accident on the way to Florida with another man. Quoyle is finally convinced by his aunt to move to Newfoundland in search of a new life. The aunt has always wanted to return to the home of her ancestry, and she and Quoyle and his daughters move together.
Quoyle's friend Partridge finds Quoyle a newspaper job in Killick-Claw, the town on Newfoundland. Quoyle and the aunt find their old family house in desperate need of repair on Quoyle Point. An energetic, capable woman, the aunt finds someone right away to help them repair it. Meanwhile, the aunt's dog Warren (named after the aunt's old partner Irene Warren) dies. The newspaper in Killick-Claw is run by four crusty characters, most of them old fishermen. The paper is known for its sexual abuse stories, sensationalized car wreck photos, plagiarism and horrific typographical errors. The editor, Jack Buggit assigns Quoyle the shipping news and car wreck stories, the latter of which incites terror in Quoyle, reminding him of Petal's fate. All of the characters at the newsroom have their own stories. Nutbeem, the supposed foreign correspondent, built his own Chinese junk and is trying to sail around the world.
Within a little while,Dennis Buggit, a local carpenter and Jack's son, has helped the aunt and Quoyle fix up the old family house. As they settle in, Bunny grows terrified of a certain white dog that no one but her ever seems to see. Quoyle overcomes his fears of water and buys himself a lousy boat. The aunt, meanwhile, sets up an upholstery business in town, and soon has an assignment reupholstering an expensive Dutch yacht that was supposedly made for Hitler. Curiously, the yacht has a history of destruction, taking out beach houses and boats during Hurricane Bob. The owners of the boat are an odd couple who continually fight. Quoyle profiles the boat for the paper, landing himself a new assignment as a ship-columnist. As it turns out, the couple takes off without paying the aunt for any of her work.
Quoyle's ancestors, who lived in the family house on the point, have a notorious reputation in Newfoundland for being dumb, boorish murderers and pirates. One day, another newspaper man, Billy Pretty takes Quoyle out to Gaze Island where Billy is from, and where Quoyle's ancestors are all buried. On the way back, the two men find a suitcase resting on a rock in the water, and find Bayonet Melville's head inside.
During this time, Quoyle has noticed a tall, graceful woman in town, Wavey Prowse, whose child, Herry, has Down's Syndrome. Wavey initially draws Quoyle's attention because of the way she walks and carries herself; they have a mutual fondness for each other. One day, they seem to come close to physical intimacy, but Wavey, reminded of her dead husband, runs away. Quoyle has an epiphany, feeling renewed and sure of his place amidst the great vastness of sea, earth, and time.
Quoyle hears from Billy Pretty that there is one last Quoyle living on Newfoundland, a cousin of Quoyle's named Nolan, who seems to think the family house rightfully belongs to him. Quoyle sees someone one day from a distance who seems to recognize Quoyle. Every so often, Quoyle finds a piece of knotted twine, left like a threat in his living space. One night the aunt sees a stranger prowling about their house, and Quoyle wakes up to a flashlight beam in his room. But the stranger disappears as quickly as he came.
Meanwhile, the modern world seems to be encroaching on Newfoundland. Massive factory ships are replacing small, local fishing operations; oil tankers and oil spills abound, ruining what few natural resources are left. Tert Card, like the devil he is, sides with technology, pitting himself against all his fish dog comrades. One day, Quoyle writes a column lamenting the fact that oilrigs are replacing old-fashioned schooners. Tert Card rewrites it as a propaganda piece for oilrigs, provoking Quoyle's anger. Jack Buggit decides Quoyle is in the right.
Quoyle's lousy boat gets the best of him one day when he is capsized while trying to save a floating body that he spotted from the point. Jack Buggit finds Quoyle, and saves him from drowning. The floating body Quoyle was after was actually the decapitated body of Bayonet Melville.
When winter arrives, the aunt and Quoyle and the children move out of the family house. The aunt after receiving money in the mail from Silver Melville, finds a job upholstering in St. John's and moves there just for the winter. Meanwhile, Nutbeem decides he will head out of Newfoundland. At a good-bye party, the men get so rowdy that they destroy Nutbeem's boat. Nutbeem decides he will go to Brazil instead.
When Quoyle finds knotted twine in the doorways of his girls' room, he goes to hunt down the cousin, Nolan. He finds Nolan lying beside his white dog, a dirty, mad hermit and Quoyle gives up the idea of a fight. At Christmastime, Dennis Buggit and Quoyle go to take Nolan some food. Eventually, the cousin is put in an insane asylum. When Quoyle visits, Nolan reveals that Quoyle's father raped the aunt when they were young.
Tert Card leaves Killick-Claw to take a job putting out a newsletter for oil suppliers, and Quoyle takes his old job at the Gammy Bird. As the weeks pass, seal hunting turns to herring and then lobster. The aunt comes back in the early spring at the same time a huge storm hits Newfoundland. The house on the point falls off the rock and collapses into the sea. Meanwhile, Wavey and Quoyle grow closer, and Wavey brings Bunny a white dog that Bunny loves. One night, Jack does not return home from lobster fishing. They finally find him, drowned as a result of getting his foot caught on a slingstone hitch. While Dennis, Jack's wife, and Bunny look over him at the wake, he begins to cough, coming back to life. Jack lives to tell his tale, and Quoyle and Wavey marry.