Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson was a wild ride. Traveling back and forth in time and between people, two grown children learn about their mother’s past through her recorded oral history. In this novel, we learn about this family’s secrets, cultural histories, and just so many things. Continue reading to get my hot take on this new novel by Charmaine Wilkerson.
In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett’s death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a traditional Caribbean black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child, challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage, and themselves.
Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor’s true history, and fulfill her final request to “share the black cake when the time is right”? Will their mother’s revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever?
Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel is a story of how the inheritance of betrayals, secrets, memories, and even names, can shape relationships and history. Deeply evocative and beautifully written, Black Cake is an extraordinary journey through the life of a family changed forever by the choices of its matriarch.
(Disclaimer: I received this book from Netgalley. This has not impacted my review which is unbiased and honest.)
I’ll be honest at first, the jumping between points of view was initially distracting. Eventually, it became integral to the narrative. Eleanor, the late mother of Byron and Benny, and her audio recordings narrative much of Black Cake. In the recordings, she reveals aspects of her and her family’s past. I think the fact that much of this is through an oral history justifies what might seem like unorganized jumping around in time and tangents about random people. This is the recollection of a woman who lived a full life full of secrets and traumatic events; a person will not perfectly lay out their entire history. I know when I tell stories, I often jumble and confuse the narrative.
I think this narration style also helps to reflect the emotions and confusion of Eleanor’s children Byron and Benny. The siblings that were once so close are coming together after years of estrangement. In addition, they are now facing the revelations of what their family’s true history was. What might seem to be at times a jarring narrative really works well to situate yourself in this family’s shoes.
I admit Black Cake was at times a slow read, but not necessarily a bad way. This is not a book filled with action that keeps you flipping the pages. It is a slow burn as you are taken through this family’s history. I think it also helps you experience it the same way Byron and Benny are experiencing their mother’s audio recording. It takes them several days and sittings to go through and process what their late mother is telling them.
I think Wilkerson did a great job of weaving in the different aspects of cultural identity and belonging (or not) as we traveled through an unnamed Caribbean island, to the UK, Italy, and eventually the US. I enjoyed seeing how historical (and present) issues such as race, sexuality, and ethnicity are present in Eleanor’s story, as well as the experiences of Byron and Benny. The incorporation of the black cake was an interesting focal point of Black Cake, which lends itself to the importance of culture to this novel.
I suppose one drawback from the plot would be the ending, which did seem to tie up too neatly. The number of people who were still living at the end surprised me. Not that there is murder or war, but this is a multi-generational narrative. Some people I would have expected to have died of natural causes as was the case with Eleanor.
While it did tie itself up too neatly for some, I think the overall story worked for me. I did enjoy Black Cake as a casual read. It did take some time to get through – not due to being bored, but just by the natural progression of the novel. Wilkerson did address important social issues that I think always have a place in narratives. While stories are supposed to take us away from the world, we cannot forget them. If you get the chance, I strongly recommend you read Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson.