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.
Kwaku Cholmondeley (KWAH-kew CHUHM-lee), the protagonist. Kwaku, an orphan reared by his uncle, becomes convinced early in life that “there was much protection in idiocy, and that intelligence was like the pimpla palm, bearer of good fruit, but afflicted by thorns.” Despite his inability to keep his mouth shut and his comic posturing, Kwaku, who becomes a shoemaker, is convinced of his superiority and of his special destiny. He retains this belief throughout his marriage to Miss Gwendoline, whom he loves deeply. He eventually leaves his village to seek his fortune. Although for a period he attains success as a healer, he ultimately fails and ends his life in terrible poverty, abused by his children.
Blossom Dean, Kwaku’s lifelong friend and conscience, the village bookworm. She becomes a bus conductor and spends ten years living with a boyfriend, Wilfred Service, whom Kwaku must eventually pressure into marrying her. She is self-sufficient, loyal, and bossy. Although Kwaku is not attracted to her, he has a brief affair with her late in life. Unbeknown to Wilfred, it is Kwaku who is the father of Blossom’s only child.
Miss Gwendoline, Kwaku’s wife. Although theirs was an arranged marriage, it is a loving one. Miss Gwendoline, however, is skeptical of Kwaku’s schemes to attain greatness and jealous of his relationships with Blossom and with his friend Mr. Barzey. Miss Gwendoline bears Kwaku eight children, for whose care she becomes single-handedly responsible upon Kwaku’s departure for New Amsterdam. She partially supports the household by making and selling blood pudding. She is struck blind by a fisherman who is angry at her husband and who puts a spell on her. After this catastrophe, she loses control over the children and loses touch with reality, becoming an alcoholic.
Mr. Barzey, Kwaku’s neighbor, a faith healer whom Kwaku originally befriends during Mr. Barzey’s failed attempt to cure him of his gray hairs. Although somewhat senile and under the thumb of his vengeful daughter-in-law, the retiree becomes Kwaku’s mentor and only male friend, teaching him how to become a photographer. Mr. Barzey, after a long struggle with his daughter-in-law, who he feels deprives him of freedom, ends up hanging himself.
Kwaku’s uncle, who rears him after his mother dies and his father disappears. He has little affection for his nephew.
Philomena, Kwaku’s favorite daughter, who grows to be a flirtatious teenager, much to her mother’s dismay. She is ultimately disturbed by what she sees as the incestuous overtones of her relationship with her father.
Rona, Miss Gwendoline’s favorite daughter. She is obedient and self-sacrificing. She becomes her mother’s helper after Miss Gwendoline is blinded. Finally, however, she rebels and runs off with a lover.