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Black Cake

Review

Black Cake

Charmaine Wilkerson makes her fiction debut with BLACK CAKE, a riveting and moving second-chance novel about a fractured family and the lore that brings them back together one last time.

“B and B, there’s a small black cake in the freezer for you…. I want you to sit down together and share the cake when the time is right. You’ll know when.” So begins Eleanor Bennett’s final message to her adult children, delivered in an audio file that her lawyer, Mr. Mitch, tells them took her more than eight hours over four days to record before her death. Byron and Benny were once inseparable --- Byron, the protective, knowledgeable older brother; Benny, his goofy, charming little sister.

But the siblings have been estranged for several years now, with Byron chasing his ambitious career as social media’s favorite hunky Black scientist and Benny wandering aimlessly from one passion to another on a journey of self-discovery. Forced back into one another’s stratosphere by their mother’s death, Byron and Benny are already at one another’s throats when Mr. Mitch explains that her last wish was for them to listen to her tape --- together --- in his presence to learn the truth about their family, how she met their father, and the secret sister they never knew.

"... a riveting and moving second-chance novel about a fractured family and the lore that brings them back together one last time.... [M]uch like the recipe at the heart of the story, BLACK CAKE is deep, rich and best savored as a special treat."

BLACK CAKE kicks off at a breakneck speed, with Wilkerson alternating between Byron and Benny’s inner monologues, Eleanor’s tape, and stories of a passionate young swimmer, Covey, growing up on the Caribbean islands. Though juggling multiple narratives, Wilkerson quickly identifies her key players and makes them instantly relatable to readers. Byron is ambitious but cold, and carries a lot of resentment toward his sister. Benny, meanwhile, is hell-bent on proving herself to her family and now feels unmoored without anyone to convince. Covey, brave and bold, is pushed from her homeland and forced to start a new life with almost nothing to her name but her mother’s black cake recipe.

Acting almost as a stage director, only Mr. Mitch knows the truth about Eleanor’s revelations, and his observations of the quarreling siblings provide lots of helpful positioning. Perhaps the main character is Eleanor’s black cake, baked from a family recipe passed down through generations that now carries almost mystical powers and the ability to convey love when words simply won’t do.

Eleanor’s story sprawls over 50 years of family dysfunction, buried hurts and betrayals, love stories, and vibrant, colorful descriptions of Caribbean beaches, rich food and deep emotions. Wilkerson’s approach is kaleidoscopic, centering first on balanced portions of the siblings’, their mother’s and Covey’s stories and then expanding rapidly to introduce supporting characters from each person’s past, jumping continent to continent as the narrative broadens in scope. With every reveal, Wilkerson highlights the ways that each character perceives himself or herself and how it translates to others (spoiler: we’re almost never accurate in our perceptions of ourselves). While this makes for incredibly fun reading, the grander plot takes some dedication to follow. And with each storyline built on another, it is difficult to describe the book without giving away huge plot points.

What I can say is that much like the recipe at the heart of the story, BLACK CAKE is deep, rich and best savored as a special treat. Though the premise of a dying wish and a secret sibling may sound familiar, Wilkerson proves that even the most recognizable plots can become something wildly unique when they are given ample room to grow and populated by distinctive, deeply human characters who contain multitudes. Beyond that, she covers many complicated, poignant themes here --- racism, generational trauma, political divides, queerness and so much more --- but the overarching theme is identity, whether the kind we inherit or the kind we must forge for ourselves.

Through Eleanor’s recording, Byron and Benny inherit the gift of knowledge --- of their familial history but also of themselves. As Wilkerson demonstrates, however, this gift is only half of the story; what matters more is what they will do with it.

With a background in journalism, Wilkerson clearly loves to research details. She uses them to flesh out her stories and make them more accessible. This talent has a tendency to overwhelm here, and while I fear some readers may be turned away by the constantly evolving plot, settings and cast, I urge you to take the time to really savor this one. The complicated legacy of the Bennett family is well worth the effort, and you risk missing out on so many meaty details and themes by turning away at the first sign of a struggle.

Much like the final reveal of Eleanor’s recipe, BLACK CAKE is not “so much a list of firm quantities and instructions as a series of hints for how to proceed.”

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on February 4, 2022

Black Cake
by Charmaine Wilkerson

  • Publication Date: February 1, 2022
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books
  • ISBN-10: 0593358333
  • ISBN-13: 9780593358337