Sylvia, a seventeen-year-old girl with special qualities of vitality, beauty, fragility, and desirability. The women of the Calvary Hill slum hope that she can miraculously escape the inevitable and common destiny of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, and defeat and that her youth and promise will not be destroyed. Unable to establish a relationship with Aldrick based on love and the hope for an ordinary life, Sylvia faces the reality of her fatherless family’s poverty and gives herself to Guy in return for gifts, rent, and eventually a place of her own. Seven years later, on the eve of the wedding that will formalize and secure her relationship with Guy, she goes in search of Aldrick.
Belasco “Fisheye” John, a tall and powerfully built man with bulging eyes. He is a “bad John,” indulging in violence to vent his bubbling rage. In his mid-thirties, he joins the Calvary Hill steel band more as a fighter than as a musician. Having found a purpose in life and a sense of pride and belonging, he is able to express a humanity that had been hidden. Unable to accept the end of the steel-band wars, he is expelled from the band, returns to his antisocial ways, and is sentenced to seven years in prison for leading an attack on the police.
Miss Cleothilda Alvarez, an aging mulatto who, at Carnival, plays Queen of the Calvary Hill Carnival band. She is a parlor owner and former beauty queen. By virtue of her color, looks, and money, and the credit she extends to her customers, she exercises a condescending and manipulative control over her resentful but compliant neighbors. Gossipy and vindictive, she is superficially transformed at Carnival time into a generous advocate of unity and brotherhood. Forever coquettish, she scorns Philo, her black would-be lover; she loses her superior status when, after many years, she finally accepts him.
Samuel “Philo” Sampson, a forty-two-year-old singer and friend of Aldrick. A pleasant, smiling, boyish man, he becomes affluent when he turns from calypsos of social protest to popular smut. Wanting old friends to understand that he is still one of them, he is confused and hurt when his generosity is rejected.
Boya Pariag, a budding entrepreneur of East Indian descent, a newcomer to Calvary Hill. Shy, introspective, and with a desperate need to belong, he is excluded by his Creole neighbors. Hard work brings him financial success but not, as he had hoped, his neighbors’ appreciation of his true self.
Dolly, Pariag’s wife through an arranged marriage. She is uncomplaining, patient, and understanding, seeing financial success as protection against prejudice.
Miss Olive, Sylvia’s mother. Slow, stout, and six feet tall, she takes in washing to support her seven children. Dutifully suffering Miss Cleothilda’s demands and pomposity out of pity as much as respect, she has no heart to expose Cleothilda’s weakness.
Guy, a middle-aged property owner and rent collector who makes Sylvia his mistress and later plans to marry her.