Author: Charmaine Wilkerson
Pub. Date: Feb. 2022 (read Sep. 2022 on Audible)
I have been sitting on this book all year! I’ve heard so many good things about it and have been meaning to pick it up for months, so I finally got the audiobook version and flew through it in a few days.
Black Cake tells the story of two siblings and the life of their mother, who has just passed away. The siblings have been estranged for several years, but their mother, Eleanor, leaves a recording for them to listen to together telling the real story of her life – all the things she never told them about herself.
It has a bit of a slow start, focusing on the 2 siblings, Byron and Benny, but once they start listening to Eleanor’s recording, I was hooked. Eleanor grew up in one of the Caribbean Islands (exact location not named), which has left its mark on her entire family, despite her children never having been there.
It’s a long book, and as with most long books, I do think it could have been shorter, but the author does cover a lot of ground. We are introduced to a lot of characters over the course of the novel and while it was sometimes overwhelming, every character was well placed and had a role to play. It’s a smartly written book, it could have been tightened up a bit, but it’s the kind of narrative where there are no thoughts out of place. The author is intentional about both the plot and the characters and I like a book that is plotted that way. That said, while everything has its place, the author does tackle a lot and I think she could have done more justice to her ideas had she focused more on a few central themes (primarily as they relate to Eleanor).
While I liked it a lot (it’s an engaging story), where I think it fails is in adequately developing Byron and Benny’s stories. Eleanor’s story is incredibly well developed, but for such a long book, I still didn’t really feel like I knew Benny or Byron or understood their relationship with one another. Their stories are briefly developed and we examine Benny’s struggles with being queer and Byron’s struggles with unconscious bias and racism in his workplace, but I felt their stories were topical and not given enough depth to be really meaningful.
Maybe it’s just that they paled next to Eleanor, but I felt that this story could have been historical fiction solely about Eleanor and it would have been just as good, if not better. There were complex relationships between all of the characters, but I do think the narrative is partially strained by the fact that we never get to meet Eleanor alive. Everything is recounted, which creates a level of separation between the events, how the main characters feel about them, and how the reader perceives them.
Despite how this review is making it seem, these are just minor criticisms of how it could have been improved, I did still really enjoy the book. It’s a great story and I loved the centering of it around the black cake. Culture and food do play a big role in who we are or become and I loved how the black cake grounds the story. I would definitely recommend and I’m interested to see what else Charmaine Wilkerson writes!