REVIEW: Black Cake
Updated: Jan 31, 2022
This debut novel from Charmaine Wilkerson is everything. It was the book I didn't know I needed in January. I will be thinking about it and trying to convince people to read it for a long time. Special thanks to Ballantine Books and NetGalley for an advanced copy to read in exchange for an honest review. I snagged a physical copy through Book of the Month, and Black Cake is set to publish on this coming Tuesday, February 1, 2022. You can pre-order yours now from your favorite book seller!
Byron and Benny's mother, Eleanor Bennett, has died leaving them with the oddest inheritance ever: a Caribbean Black Cake and a recording of her life's story which she has never shared with them. What she reveals within the recording changes the perspective both Byron and Benny have about life. Do they know their mother? Do they even know themselves?? And will they know "when the time is right" to partake of the Black Cake???
Presented in a dual timeline format, we are given the story of grieving and estranged siblings Byron and Benny as their mother shares her traumatic and turbulent history. I loved this approach and think Charmaine Wilkerson brilliantly wove in the perspectives of a few other important characters. The short chapters especially helped make the swaps easier because you never spent too long in one voice to become intrenched in their perspective. (Aside: I have seen some reviews critiquing the many points of view, but I did not find them overwhelming and honestly felt like they added to the depth of the story. If you're not ready for that, it could feel "busy." Depending on how the audiobook is done, I could see how it might be a bit much.) From the beginning, you do have to be willing to accept that Eleanor Bennett is revealing secrets she has long kept hidden from view. This brings Byron and Benny to a place of questioning their identity and family memories. No matter how old you are, at some point in your life I'm sure you also experienced feelings like this. And this is where the heart comes into the novel.
This character driven debut displays so much growth in the main characters. Byron, the scientific brainiac, learns to become more empathetic. Seeming failure Benny learns to look past some of the hurt she is holding onto. And even though Eleanor is dead, you can tell she has experienced growth too. By the end, all three of them have a deeper grasp on family, love, and how those themes interplay together.
As I was nearing the end of the book, I thought I might end up with a couple unanswered questions. Yet Charmaine Wilkerson found time to answer them and wrapped everything up in the most perfect package ever. Once I finished the book, I found myself appreciating this abstract cover even more. If you're all about diving deep into family relationships where the past greatly impacts them, this book is definitely for you.
Another reason I think I connected with this story so immediately is because my own family is from the Caribbean. The mention of cutting pineapple on the beach early in the book caused a specific cutting method to spring to mind. And the term "Black Cake" means something to me. Although we call it "Christmas Cake" and it's eaten most often at Christmas time. In talking with my grandmother after reading the novel, I did learn that she served this cake at her wedding. While I think a personal connection is a huge plus, I believe I would have enjoyed this book anyway.
Content Warnings: death of a parent, abuse, racism, rape, murder, forced adoption