Black Cake is the debut novel of Charmaine Wilkerson. The story begins with siblings Bryon and Benedetta (Benny) Bennett meeting with their mother’s estate attorney. The two siblings haven’t spoken to each other for eight years when Benny felt rejected after revealing to her family that she was a lesbian. She did not return six years ago when her father died but has come back for her mother’s funeral. The siblings learn that their mother, Eleanor, has left them an eight-hour video to tell the two children the surprising real history of their parents. She has also left a frozen black cake for them to share when the time is right. The black cake is a rum-soaked fruit cake made from a beloved family recipe.
The video introduces a large cast of characters from Eleanor’s past, beginning with her life on an unnamed Caribbean island, traveling to London, Scotland, and eventually Southern California. There is also background information on Bryon and Benny, neither of whom seem to be able to form happy relationships.
With some restraint, it could have been a really good story. Because the author decided to cover a plethora of social issues, including an arranged marriage, parental abandonment, workplace rape, police brutality against blacks, gambling, racial and gay discrimination, forced adoption, domestic abuse, and protection of the ocean, the story seemed weighed down at times. If she had just focused on the concepts of home, identity, family secrets, second chances, and fewer social issues, I would have enjoyed it much more. Many of the chapters are short and out of order chronologically, giving the story a disjointed feeling. On the positive side, I enjoyed the historical aspects of island life and the emphasis on the importance of food and traditions. The book asks important questions about racial identity and what someone would be willing to do in the name of love.
3-stars. Thank you to Kathleen Q at Penguin Random House for my widget! The novel will be published on February 1, 2022, by Ballantine Books.