Lyrical language drives this novel set in World War II Barcelona and narrated by the unborn brother of the central character, fourteen-year-old David Bartra. David lives with his mother, Rosa, the beautiful wife of a communist insurgent who has gone into hiding; as the story opens she is under the surveillance of a widowed cop. David does his best to shield his mother from this stranger, but the persistent policeman believes Rosa knows where her husband is; in the course of his surveillance he becomes infatuated with Rosa, and eventually a friendship develops between the two which David opposes and finally destroys.
David and his best friend Paulino, a boy his age who is physically and sexually abused by his uncle, spend their free time in the gully behind David's house looking for the titular lizard tails to make a potion to solve their problems. Paulino shoots and wounds his tormenter and is sent to the reformatory; Rosa develops eclampsia and dies in childbirth; orphaned David and his premature brother go to live with their aunt; David becomes a photographer and dies fleeing the police while recording a postwar transportation strike.
Most of the book is in dialogue, and Marsé uses David's vivid fantasy life to allow him to talk with various characters despite their absence. He holds conversations with his father, who disappeared six months before the story begins, as well as his mother's former lover, a RAF fighter pilot who died in captivity. Like his mother, David also speaks to his younger brother who is still in utero as the story unfolds. There are even conversations with an older brother who had died an early death at the beginning of the war.
The novel cleverly blurs the lines between the real and the surreal. David's conversations with his absentee father and the phantom RAF pilot reveal much of the plot of the book, but yet leave enough room for doubt about what has actually occurred in the past. The author's beautiful language, which perfectly matches the dream state in which David passes much of his time, makes this a highly satisfying read despite the tragic outcome for all the main characters.