Keith is looking for meaning in history, looking back to the early years of industry in the valley. Judith is more focused on the present, though she is hardly satisfied with life on the housing estate or the role of housewife to an unexciting husband. Jack is escaping his recent past in England, but is reticent about coming home. He first gets lodgings two valleys to the east of his home town, finding temporary work in the Hot Strip Mill in the steel works. Eventually he meets with his old school-friend in the works showers and lodges with Keith and Jude. O, is an observer. Ritual in his rigid adherence to habit, he is also a resentful outsider, is instrumental in exposing Jude and Jack's affair. Jude's decisions eventually signal independence, while Jack and Keith have to decide whether to stay or leave the town facing a post-industrial future.
The novel is told from the perspective of four characters – Keith, Judith, Jack and O. Keith is married to Judith. He is a steel worker and an amateur local historian. Judith is whiling away the time as a housewife, and eventually has an affair with Jack who has become their lodger. Jack was brought up in Tredegar, but has been away in England. He gets a job in the steel works – which is closing down, section by section. O is a character who remains on the peripheries, marking time through routine and repetition. He lives with his mother and doesn't fit into the macho culture of the steelworks, but is a keen observer of others.
The narrative switches back and forth between the perspectives of the four characters, sometimes revisiting the same event from different points of view. The effect is to unsettle the possibility of a single authoritative position.
This is a novel set in an unnamed steel works and the neighbouring valleys where the workers live. Although the towns are not named, the novel is set mainly in the author's native Tredegar and the neighbouring Ebbw Vale, once the location of one of the largest steel works in Europe.
Key landmarks, such as the Sirhowy Iron Works, the clock which stands in the centre of the circle at Tredegar, and the cholera cemetery above the town, are all closely described in Shifts.
More information about the history of Tredegar can be found in these videos: