Debut novelist Charmaine Wilkerson’s impressive Black Cake is a sweeping, multigenerational saga filled with secrets, misunderstandings, and eventually healing and reconciliation.
At the heart of the story is matriarch Eleanor Bennett and her family’s signature recipe for Black Cake. The concoction, which has been passed down for generations, takes months to complete because the baker soaks the fruit in rum and port. When a California earthquake hits her house, Eleanor instructs her son Byron to run back to the kitchen to grab the precious jar of fruit soaking for a future cake. It is a staple at weddings, family events and holidays, and when her beloved husband Bert dies, a slice of cake is buried with him. The cake is more than just a recipe. It is a reminder of Eleanor’s Caribbean childhood, which was cut short 50 years ago by tragedy.
Before Eleanor dies, she records a message for son Byron and daughter Benedetta (Benny). She tells them she made one last Black Cake, and they should get it out of the freezer when the time is right and eat it together. “Promise me you’ll try to get along. You can’t afford to lose each other.”
Byran and Benny have numerous grievances against each other, and are barely civil when they are summoned to their childhood home by their mother’s lawyer to listen to their her recording. Over two days, the estranged siblings hear a remarkable story about who their parents really were, and one big secret Eleanor kept until the very end: They have a sister she wants them to find.
Beautifully told in short chapters, the story moves quickly and seamlessly from the past to the present, from an unnamed Caribbean island, to England, Scotland, Italy and the United States. The present-day stories of Byran and Benny reflect their struggles as African Americans, and for Benny, who is bi-sexual, to succeed in a world where they feel like they don’t quite fit in.
I found that the most compelling part of the novel is Eleanor’s story, which is intriguing and complex. It kept me turning the pages, wanting to hear how her life unfolds. I highly recommend Black Cake for readers who enjoy epic family stories with well-developed characters.