‘Black Cake’ contains the recipe for a deliciously intriguing first novel
Charmaine Wilkerson’s contemporary novel “Black Cake” is a gripping tale of betrayal, lies and secrets. However, at its heart, the novel reveals that identity is not just shaped by our own unique experiences, but by those we love. Wilkerson sets up an intriguing story deeply rooted in family and lore that you can’t help but read.
The story begins in California in 2018 with two siblings, Byron and Benny Bennett, sitting in the office of their late mother Elenor’s attorney. The lawyer reveals that their mother left behind an enigmatic eight-hour audio file and a frozen traditional Caribbean black cake with instructions to eat it when the time is right. Here’s the thing: It’s been eight years since Benny argued with her family, and six years since she missed the funeral of their father, Bert. The siblings must find their way back to each other after years of anger, misunderstanding and separation to piece together the untold stories their mother posthumously reveals. What they discover challenges their perception of their mother, causing Byron and Benny to wonder if they ever really knew Eleanor, or themselves.
The novel moves from the past, where Eleanor’s message begins, to the present, where we see Byron and Benny’s reactions. As the siblings listen to their mother’s message, Eleanor tells her children that the first story they need to know is about a girl named Covey. Told from multiple perspectives, the novel travels back in time to an unnamed island in the Caribbean where Covey lives. After Covey’s mother abandons her, she reunites with her alcoholic and gambler father, Lin, and family helper, Pearl; Covey’s boyfriend Gibbs and her best friend Bunny are also supportive as she grows up on the island. When Lin’s game finally catches up with him, he puts his daughter in an unforgivable position that results in an unsolved murder and the loss of his daughter. Unbeknownst to Byron and Benny, there is an unexpected connection between Eleanor and the characters in her story that is slowly revealed throughout the novel.
Moving between past and present, and traveling from the Caribbean to London to California, the unfolding narrative is unforgettable and gripping. Through the novel’s exploration of the past, we learn the value of generational losses and hardships. To say I fell in love with this novel would be an understatement: I admire Wilkerson’s ability to introduce such complex, flawed, and relatable characters while maintaining a cohesive and engaging plot.
A particularly intriguing character was Benny, the girl who feels she lives in Byron’s shadow because she chose her own path instead of the one her parents gave her. After dropping out of college, she yearned for a secure life, just as her family had provided for her while she was growing up. Flying between homes, partners and careers, Benny endures cycles of loneliness. Feeling lost and confused by her brother’s hesitation to welcome her back into his life, she seeks to clarify Eleanor’s message. Benny is a reflection of our innate human inclination to seek warmth, comfort and acceptance. She reminds us that it is impossible to fit into the boxes that others assign to us. By destroying these boxes, one can create his own identity or remember who he was before letting the opinions of others dictate his life. Wilkerson describes identity as something we can shape and something that is dictated by our origins through Benny’s struggles to find a place as daughter, sister, and girlfriend.
As the story progresses, the multiple perspectives reveal the varied experiences of generations of men and women, each exposed to the different despicable realities of life such as racism, homophobia, and sexual assault. Writing about Lin, Wilkerson explores the complexities of interracial marriage and existence among the Chinese Caribbean diaspora. Although his character is frustrating at times, the utter humiliation he suffered simply because of the color of his skin cannot be denied. Wilkerson Also raises awareness of the violence people of color face, including through depicting the normalization of police brutality. It’s what made Byron’s experiences of fear as a black man in today’s America so heartbreaking to read. Although I, a white person, recognize that I will never be able to understand the interactions with racism that people of color face, it is reading and listening to black voices that can produce empathy in myself and in others willing to learn.
As the title suggests, this story is about black cake. The fruit cake soaked in rum, made from an old family recipe, reveals that the integration of tradition, especially food, into a person’s identity can impact generations. In “Black Cake”, the tradition is deeply rooted. Just as the black cake connected Covey and Pearl, it connects Benny and Eleanor. Covey’s earliest memories were of coming home with her mother and Pearl laughing, dancing and baking black cake. Even after Covey’s mother abandoned her, Pearl still baked the cake for weddings on the island and for Covey as a reminder of her past. Likewise, Benny recalls his childhood filled with laughter in a kitchen closed to her and Eleanor. Later, Benny frequently bakes the cake despite his broken ties with his family. Wilkerson describes the black cake as a testament to the power of family and tradition. For all the women in history, the black cake reminds them that the people they love make up who they are.
Wilkerson’s prose is the equivalent of what I imagined for black cake: rich in detail, steeped in tradition and made to be savored. Every word was written out of respect for those who preceded the author. Issues of childhood abandonment, family resentment, and environmental protection are naturally woven into the story, not shoved in the reader’s face.
Perhaps time (and cake) doesn’t cure everything, but reveals how all of our lives are intertwined with each other. The Black Cake manages to transcend death and uncertainty and tell the story of various characters spanning generations. The novel has the right balance of provocative characters and an established plot that makes it worthwhile. It may be too early to admit it, but “Black Cake” is one of my favorite books of the year.
Daily Arts Writer Ava Seaman can be reached at [email protected].