Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson is a Caribbean saga revealing mysteries of family heritage

In 2018, after their mother Eleanor’s death, estranged siblings Byron and Benedetta “Benny” Bennett return to their California home for the memorial and to heed Eleanor’s final requests: that they listen together, in an attorney’s presence, to a recording Eleanor made in her last days, and sit down to share their mother’s traditional rum-soaked black cake when the time is right.

After years of mutual hurt involving them and their late parents, Byron and Benny are wary of one another. They’re also unsure of their own paths forward. Byron, an African American oceanographer and TV personality, has endured a bad breakup, while Benny had distanced herself for serious personal reasons. Eleanor’s account dredges up mysteries from her youth and shakes up everything her children believed about their family.

This scenario may sound contrived, but it’s surprisingly easy to buy into because of how well the characters and their relationships are fleshed out. As Eleanor begins unspooling a tale about a young woman named Covey, a talented swimmer growing up on an unnamed Caribbean island in the ’60s, Byron and Benny are skeptical about its relevance. But the less said about the plot, the better, save that it spans miles and continents across decades and delves into themes of survival, exile, and the deep flavor of one’s heritage.

To call Black Cake innovatively layered is understating things. While the story may seem like it bounces between people and eras without a discernible pattern, soon you’ll realize that this talented debut author has her recipe under perfect control. A few pages here, a full chapter there, all added at just the right time. The revelations keep coming; by the end, every question is answered and then some. Eleanor is a marvel of a protagonist, and just like its subject, Black Cake is a satisfying dish worth sharing with others.

Black Cake was published by Ballantine in February (Michael Joseph is the UK publisher). I reviewed it for a past issue of the Historical Novels Review.  It was a NY Times bestseller and a Read with Jenna book club pick, and Amazon tells me it's in production as a Hulu limited series. Read more at Deadline. I hadn't realized the novel was partly historical until a publicist emailed and offered me a NetGalley widget, and I'm glad she did.

No comments:

Post a Comment