Charmaine Wilkerson’s contemporary novel “Black Cake” is an engaging story 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 tradition that you can’t help but keep reading.
The story begins in California in 2018 with two siblings, Byron and Benny Bennett, sitting in their late mother Elenor’s attorney’s office. The attorney reveals that their mother left behind a cryptic, eight-hour audio file and a frozen traditional Caribbean black cake with instructions to eat it when the time is right. Here’s the problem: it’s been eight years since Benny had a falling out 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, misunderstandings and separation to piece together the untold stories their mother reveals posthumously. What they discover challenges their perception of their mother, causing Byron and Benny to question if they ever really knew Eleanor, or themselves.
The novel shifts from the past, where Eleanor’s message begins, and the present, where we view the reactions of Byron and Benny. 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 in multiple perspectives, the novel goes back in time to an unnamed island in the Caribbean where Covey lives. After Covey’s mother abandons her, she is left with her gambling, alcoholic father, Lin, and the family’s helper, Pearl; Covey’s boyfriend Gibbs and her best friend Bunny also support her as she navigates growing up on the island. When Lin’s gambling finally catches up with him, he puts his daughter in an unforgivable position that results in an unresolved 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 the past and the present, and traveling from the Caribbean to London to California, the narrative that unfolds is unforgettable and captivating. Through the novel’s exploration of the past, we learn of generations’ worth of 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 and still maintain a consistent and thought-provoking plot.
A particularly intriguing character was Benny, the daughter who feels she lives in Byron’s shadow because she chose her own path instead of the one her parents laid out for her. After she dropped out of college, she yearned for a safe life, just as her family had provided to her as she was growing up. Flitting between homes, partners and careers, Benny endures cycles of loneliness. Feeling lost and confused with her brother’s hesitance to welcome her back into his life, she seeks clarity within Eleanor’s message. Benny is a reflection of our innate human inclination to seek warmth, comfort and acceptance. She is a reminder that it is impossible to fit in the boxes that other people assign us. By destroying those boxes, one can create their own identity, or be reminded of who they were before they let the opinions of others dictate their life. Wilkerson portrays identity as something we can shape and something that’s dictated by our backgrounds through Benny’s struggles to find a place as a daughter, sister and girlfriend.
As the story progresses, the multiple perspectives reveal the varying experiences of generations of men and women, each exposed to the different despicable realities of life such as racism, homophobia and sexual assault. When writing about Lin, Wilkerson explores the complexities of interracial marriage and existing within the Caribbean Chinese diaspora. Although his character was frustrating at times, the utter humiliation he went through simply because of the color of his skin cannot be denied. Wilkerson also brings awareness to the violence that people of color face, especially through the portrayal of the normalization of police brutality. It’s what made Byron’s experiences of fear as a Black man in present-day America so heartbreaking to read about. Although I, a white person, acknowledge that I can never understand the interactions with racism that people of color face, it is the act of reading and listening to Black voices that can produce empathy in myself and others willing to learn.
As the title suggests, this story is about black cake. The rum-soaked fruit cake, made from an old family recipe, reveals that the integration of tradition — specifically food — in one’s identity can impact generations. In “Black Cake,” tradition runs deep. Just as black cake connected Covey and Pearl, it connects Benny and Eleanor. Covey’s earliest memories were of coming home to her mother and Pearl laughing, dancing and making black cake. Even after Covey’s mother abandoned her, Pearl still made the cake for weddings on the island and for Covey as a reminder of her past. Similarly, Benny recalls her childhood filled with laughter in a kitchen closed off to just her and Eleanor. Later on, Benny frequently bakes the cake despite her severing ties with her family. Wilkerson portrays black cake as a testament to the power of family and tradition. For all the women in the story, black cake reminds them that the people they love make up who they are.
Wilkerson’s prose is the equivalent of what I have imagined black cake to be: rich in detail, soaked in tradition and made to be savored. Each word was written out of respect for those who came before the author. Issues of childhood abandonment, familial resentment and environmental protection are naturally woven into the story, not shoved in the reader’s face.
Maybe time (and cake) doesn’t heal all things but reveals how all of our lives are intertwined with others. The black cake manages to transcend death and uncertainty and tell the story of diverse characters spanning generations. The novel has the right balance of provocative characters and an established plot that makes it worthwhile to read. It might be too early to admit, but “Black Cake” takes the cake in being one of my favorite books of the year.
Daily Arts Writer Ava Seaman can be reached at email@example.com.