Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 544
Adah (AH-duh), the protagonist. A young Nigerian sociology student, she is a mother with middle-class aspirations who is separated from her husband and must rear her five small children, the oldest of whom is eight years old. A talented, qualified young woman, Adah is caught in the machinery of the British welfare state and is inexorably pauperized and humiliated.
The landlord, a mean-spirited and hostile man. Like Adah, he and his wife are Nigerians, but of the Yoruba tribe. A council tenant himself, he illegally sublets a squalid room in his council flat to Adah and her five children, informing the council that Adah is a relative and only a guest. He exploits Adah by charging her double rent because he wants to make money from his flat to pay for his studies. He also terrorizes her and her children with his daily “juju” escapades.
Mrs. Devlin, a kindly Irish woman who lives above the landlord’s flat. A mother of two sons, she looks out for Adah and speaks out against the landlord’s and the council’s exploitation of Adah’s desperation.
Whoopey, a mama’s girl of feckless optimism. The lonely, dependent single mother of two children has lived with her mother, Mrs. Cox, and sister at the Pussy Cat Mansions all her life. Despite her dependence and her love of alcohol and bars, Whoopey and Mrs. Cox become Adah’s most constant companions and friends, providing cushioning comfort and easing her into the society of “ditch dwellers,” those living on welfare. A classic example of the characteristic dependency in the welfare system, Whoopey falls deeper in the ditch, still lacking prospects and initiative at the end of the novel.
Mrs. Cook, a Jamaican ditch-dweller and mother of five children. Hers is one of the Mansions’ very few so-called problem families with an active father present. With dignity, she extricates her family from the cycle of dependency by choosing to do without welfare assistance, going back to work, and moving her family of seven from council housing into a two-room flat to save five pounds a week.
The Smalls, a quarrelsome family consisting of Mr. Small, his wife, and his mother, Granny. They are characterized by their small-built and angry mien. Mr. Small is the council’s resident plumber for the Pussy Cat Mansions. One of the original clans of the Mansions, the Smalls tout themselves as members of the “Establishment” on account of Granny’s thirty-year residency at the Mansions. The Smalls, who are nosy and enjoy informing authorities of infractions, rudely initiate Adah into the protocol of the Mansions.
Carol, the “family adviser.” She is a lonely, overweight, patronizing officer employed by the welfare council to “police” the “problem families” of the welfare state. As a privileged member of the “Establishment,” she masterminds plans to keep the ditch dwellers at her mercy for her own fulfillment. Her manipulative, maternalistic relationship with the Mansions’ women—her “cases”—allows her to play the role of a deity who is dispensing charity.
Mr. Persial, a patronizing, middle-class council clerk in charge of emergency housing reallocation. He lectures Adah about the trend away from large families in most civilized societies.
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