Miss Helen Martins
Miss Helen Martins, an elderly South African widow and an artist. Miss Helen lives alone in the town of New Bethesda, where her eccentric sculptures have served to isolate her from her neighbors. Since her husband’s death, her work has become the spiritual center of Miss Helen’s life, bringing her a sense of fulfillment that was missing earlier, when she lived as a conventional member of society. Now that she is becoming increasingly unable to manage on her own, her wellspring of creativity seems at an end, and she is faced with a sense of darkness and despair that threatens at times to overwhelm her.
Elsa Barlow, a teacher in her thirties. Elsa is Miss Helen’s closest friend and the only person who treats the older woman’s work with respect and interest. Concerned for her friend’s well-being, Elsa arrives from Cape Town for an unannounced visit and urges Miss Helen to resist local attempts to persuade her to enter a retirement home. Elsa herself is in many ways confused and troubled; fearing commitment in her life, she has recently had an abortion and is now questioning that decision. Miss Helen has long served as a source of inspiration for her, and her reaction to the older woman’s growing inability to cope is tied to her need for Miss Helen to remain a strong role model.
Marius Byleveld, a pastor and longtime friend of Miss Helen. Marius and Miss Helen are contemporaries, and it is he who is urging her to enter a retirement home. A far more complex character than he initially appears, he seems at first to represent simply the repressive elements in conventional society that see Miss Helen’s work and lifestyle as a dangerous break with the status quo. It becomes clear as the story progresses, however, that although there are indeed aspects of that outlook in Marius, his concern for Miss Helen’s welfare is entirely genuine and is in fact motivated largely by the long-cherished love he feels for her.