I just finished the novel Black Cake, which is on Goodreads members’ list of the most anticipated books of 2022. Charmaine Wilkerson grabbed my interest from the first troubling scene in the prologue. From the editor’s synopsis, I knew estranged siblings Byron and Benny had come together following the death of their mother. Eleanor Bennett had held onto many secrets and unburdened herself of most of them in recordings she left for her children. We’re talking many layered secrets, not unlike the Jamaican black cake recipe from the title.
When I sat down to write this review, I had a hard time figuring out how much to say. I knew it would ruin someone’s else’s reading experience if I told too much of what I discovered. Each short chapter kept me engrossed in this multigenerational tale. Wilkerson’s writing reminded me of one of my favorite writers passed down by my Grandma Mae: Belva Plain. Plain similarly wrote about the immigrant experience and structured her stories into different parts as time passed between generations.
When they came back to their family home to mourn for their mother, Byron thought Benny a stranger and not the younger sister he remembered. Benny longed for her big brother to hold her and shelter her like he used to do. But Benny had been away from the family for years after a falling out after revealing details about her love life to her parents. Eleanor and Bert Bennett escaped and sacrificed so much to give their children the best life, a life they would choose if they could have. Byron chose the right path, in their eyes, while his sister Benny had at first, but then left that right path. She dropped out of college in pursuit of other avenues, and her parents feared she’d have an uncertain future.
As a result of this falling out, Byron took his parents’ side. He saw his sister as needy, desperate for approval, flighty, and selfish. His own career path had given him a sort of celebrity status in the ocean sciences. And yet, despite the notoriety, he still feared for his life. Wilkerson drew from the headlines here. She shared moments when Byron had been pulled over while driving by the police. He thought about calling his sister. The stops left him shaken because so many Black men had not gone safely home after.
Benny had her own secrets. She didn’t explain to her family why she dropped out of college. She changed directions after an assault. Both siblings have the wrong impression about each other and about their parents. Wilkerson built the unspoken complaints and hurts into the plot so well. Her characters were aware that how they saw themselves often in no way compared to how others saw them.
Byron and Benny knew about their mother’s love of swimming and her skills in the water. They learn after she died the ways the ocean featured in their mother’s “death” and “rebirth” as a young woman. The ocean as a life force supplied freedom from past lives and freedom from social norms in the novel. (I can’t go into that without revealing spoilers, but I can see someone writing a research paper on this one. The ocean and the islands were so fundamental to the story.)
When lawyer Charles Mitch met with Eleanor’s children, he tried to stay neutral as he shared her last wishes. He knew what they were about to hear. I could relate to how hard that would be to carry. Some stories I’ve heard in my family were so unreal we still talk about them. Some we learned after the death of a loved one, and often those were probably the most heartbreaking. This novel had me questioning how well I truly know what’s in the heart of those closest to me. I would hope they aren’t/weren’t holding onto secrets that cause them unimaginable pain, like the secrets Eleanor held in all that time. I became invested in these family members and their emotional journey of self-discovery.
The multiple writing techniques Wilkerson used to tell this story reminded me of how a baker uses essential elements to create amazing culinary masterpieces. Sometimes she wrote from the point of view of one character at a time, and sometimes she gave a bird’s eye view of a conversation or event taking place in the future. She used events from history and layered current events to bring authenticity to the story. She used fiction to talk about the very real issues we’re still trying to solve in our society today. A dialogue on race, ethnicity, gender roles, and generation differences took place within the pages.
I wrote in my notes while reading this novel: Wilkerson has mastered the “delayed reveal.” I didn’t jump ahead, but I had so many “Oh, now I understand” moments while reading. The reverberating question throughout for Benny and Byron came from Eleanor: What were they willing to do? What were they willing to do — to become even — to survive and thrive?
Wilkerson tied up loose ends, which I so appreciated. And I could see healing taking place between the siblings. Eleanor found a way to tell her children how she and their father never gave up on their children. They always loved them. They always would love them. The reunions between characters from Eleanor’s past and present made up the fourth part of the novel with a satisfying ending.
I look forward to seeing the finished novel when Black Cake comes out Feb. 1. I’m curious to see the casting for the Hulu series and how closely the series is to the novel. The novel does have some cursing and more mature content as far as physical and sexual assault, but the latter is not graphic. I highly recommend this debut novel and look forward to more from this author. Thank you, Netgalley and Ballantine, for allowing me to read this uncorrected proof in exchange for my honest review.
One thought on “Review of 2022 debut novel “Black Cake””