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.
Eleanor Bennet has died, and her two estranged children, Benny and Byron, come together to the office of Eleanor’s attorney. Eleanor has left an audio recording for her children to listen to in the presence of the attorney. She also instructs that after her children have heard the recording, they are to share the Black Cake (a Caribbean specialty served for special occasions) stored in the freezer but only at the right moment, when the time is right.
In the recording, Eleanor tells the story of her life, and in so doing, reveals her hidden past. She begins in the 1960s with her life on an unnamed Caribbean island until she is forced to flee to Great Britain and finally flee once again to settle in America. As we progress through the recording and their mother’s shocking and oftentimes heartbreaking secrets are revealed, Benny and Byron, in shock, realize that they didn’t know their mother at all. They didn’t even know her real name.
I loved how this multigenerational story was revealed in two timelines: Eleanor’s tragic story in the past and the intrigue in the present revolving around Eleanor’s children — and their relationship to each other and to their mother. I was utterly fascinated (and, at times, horrified) by Eleanor’s gripping history. Once Eleanor’s revelations (and misfortunes) began to unfold, I had difficulty putting down the book.
I enjoyed how the various side characters who were introduced ended playing a much more significant role than we’d initially thought, and they were cleverly integrated into both of the timelines. Each character’s story is essential to the overall plot and they were weaved together seamlessly. The author does an exquisite job of bringing the characters to rich life, adding additional depth and feeling to the novel. These are vivid characters who touch us deeply.
Also intriguing was the intricate look at Byron and Benny’s relationship to their mysterious mother as well as to each other. What we end up with, then, is an intense, multi-layered, and complex emotional journey. It also contains a gripping mystery to solve as we move through a plethora of family secrets and betrayals. This is a highly crafted saga written by someone who clearly understands broad, sweeping stories. Each character touched my soul in ways that I simply couldn’t have fathomed when I first picked up this book.
With themes of identity, family history, misogyny, racial prejudice, culture, tradition, loyalty, sexual orientation, and longing, Black Cake is one of the most original and beautiful stories I’ve read, and the perfectly resolved ending was the cherry on top. This is a sweeping epic that enchanted me from beginning to end. Breathtakingly creative, Black Cake is an evocative and unforgettable book, and I am so glad it crossed my path.
A huge thank you to Netgalley for providing a review copy of this book. Expected publication is February 1, 2022.