Kwaku Cholmondeley fits into the tradition of the comic hero. He is resourceful, absurd, and full of dreams of glory. He is, however, more than a lovable idiot bumbling his way through a series of adventures. His loyalty to his family makes him a deeper, richer character, and the contrast between his dreams and the harsher reality that he experiences lends a poignancy to the work.
The two strongest female characters in the book, Miss Gwendoline and Blossom, are jealous of each other and are similar in their relationships to Kwaku. Both are strong allies of his, each bears at least one of his children, and both attempt to moderate his ambitions and keep him grounded in the world in which he lives. Both women struggle with their jealousy of each other. Neither is simply a killjoy, attempting only to tame a rebellious male spirit; each is a complex character in her own right. Some of the most painful scenes in the book occur as Gwendoline, once a vibrant, competent, intelligent woman, becomes increasingly isolated after losing her sight and finds her relationships with her beloved children fraying.
Mr. Barzey is one of the most complicated characters in the book, in that he embodies conflicts between tradition and technological advancement and between family and the desire to break free. His artistic endeavors set him apart from other characters, yet the art form that he has chosen, photography, is a means of capturing a world that may soon be lost. Although photography is an art form requiring modern equipment, his original purpose in taking photographs was to capture on film the spirits he saw as a child. His family is unsympathetic to his ambitions: His daughter-in-law uses his darkroom sink to wash dishes. These conflicts finally make life impossible for him, but before his death, he passes on his precious album of photographs to Kwaku, the man who is perhaps closest to him.
It is the myriad secondary characters, both villagers and residents of New Amsterdam, who provide the novel’s texture. Practitioners of obeah, humorless members of Guyana’s ruling party, lascivious women, uncomprehending bosses, and sarcastic village farmers all contribute to a varied portrayal of Guyanese life.