Book Review

Black Cake

Black Cake

  • Author: Charmaine Wilkerson
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Publication Date: February 1, 2022
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and Ballantine Books in exchange for an honest review.

CONTENT WARNING: death of a parent, biphobia, bullying, murder, prejudice, death, grief, suicide attempt, mention of sexual assault, abusive relationship

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In this moving debut novel, two estranged siblings must set aside their differences to deal with their mother’s death and her hidden past–a journey of discovery that takes them from the Caribbean to London to California and ends with her famous black cake.

We can’t choose what we inherit. But can we choose who we become?

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.

This debut novel was absolutely amazing, and I’m so glad that I got the chance to read it. The premise was intriguing, and I was immediately hooked within the very first chapter. I wasn’t expecting to find myself pulled deeper and deeper with each chapter I read, until I found myself unable to put it down at all. The fact that the story involves a lot of short chapters didn’t make it easy for me to stop reading — I lost count of the times I told myself I’d read “just one more chapter,” only to realize that I was most certainly lying to myself.

The plot is what initially drew me in. It’s the story of a family with long-held secrets, which come to light after the matriarch passes away, leaving her son and estranged daughter with an audiotape telling a story that she’s held in for decades, and a black cake for them to share at the right time. The black cake is a family recipe passed down for generations, a cultural tie to the island that their mother called home but hasn’t been to since she was young. A place that her children have never visited, and don’t really have a connection to, but is the starting point for a long journey that led them to where they are today.

But what really made the story for me was the characters. They’re all so incredibly realistic, with strengths and flaws and hopes and dreams and shortcomings and fears that make them so relatable. I could understand where both Benny and Byron were coming from, and what led them to make the choices they did, although it was easy to relate with Eleanor and her story as well. I struggled to relate to Eleanor’s father, although that was more as a result of his choices, but his character was also well-created. 

The timeline jumps back and forth from present day to the past, exploring how Eleanor’s children react to her revelations and then revisiting the past, to share her story from various perspectives of the people who were involved. I loved that we got to see the story unfold from multiple POVs, even from some of the more peripheral characters. It really showed how a series of decisions affect so many people, and how deeply people can impact one another. 

There are some heavy themes addressed in the story. There’s loss, prejudice and racism, family secrets, sexual assault, sexuality and acceptance, bullying, and societal expectations that run throughout the story. And they were all done beautifully. We learn how all of these obstacles impact individuals, but also how people learn to adapt and overcome them. But there was also an emphasis on family pressures and how they shape people into the adults that they become.

“‘I used to think it was because we were black, you know?’ Benny says. ‘That our parents wanted us to achieve, that we had to work twice as hard, be beyond reproach, that sort of thing. But now I get it. We had to be perfect to make up for the fact that our family was built on a colossal lie.’”

I loved everything about this story. There were so many secrets that were kept throughout the story, and at times, I found myself wondering if the author was going to answer all the questions that I had while reading or if she was going to leave me hanging. I was pleasantly surprised to realize that she not only answered all the questions that I had, but she also tied everything up beautifully and left me feeling completely satisfied by the time I finished the last chapter. 

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