Black Cake is Charmaine Wilkerson’s moving debut novel in which two estranged siblings, Byron and Benny, must come to terms with their mother’s death and their hidden past. It is an emotional journey into Eleanor Bennett’s past, taking her from the Caribbean to London to California. Eleanor’s famous Black Cake – a Caribbean cake with rum-soaked fruit – connects the different stages of her life. And this, along with an audio recording, is what she leaves her children after her death.
Death and mystery are the intrigues that hook the reader and create suspense. From the present in California, relating Byron and Benny’s difficulties in a comparatively comfortable life, the audio recording takes readers repeatedly, in flashbacks, to Eleanor’s mysterious past, of which her children were ignorant, and which now changes their view of their family from the ground up. While Byron and Benny’s fears, hurts and desires always remain somewhat superficial, Eleanor’s far more drastic fate, involving an escape and the reinvention of her identity – neither of which is of her own choosing – drew me in more. Eleanor’s audio recording begins on an unnamed small island in the Caribbean with the story of Covey, a teenager who becomes passionate about long-distance swimming and falls in love with the young, handsome Gibbs Grant. When Covey’s gambling-addicted father Lin, son of Chinese immigrants, wants to marry her off to the much older “Little Man” Henry because he owes him money, and he dies on the wedding day, Covey is suspected of murder. What Covey has to do with Eleanor soon becomes apparent in the book, which moves briskly from happening to happening, and numerous other characters become involved in the complex fabric of the story… But I don’t want to give too much away here.
Black Cake is a suspenseful family drama whose eventful plot drives the story forward. The way Wilkerson unravels the family’s history absolutely satisfied me as a reader in that there are explanations for everything. At times, deeper reflections of the connections would certainly have helped individual aspects or characters remain more memorable. But the novel is intelligent, not too challenging and really makes for excellent holiday reading. Moreover, the twists and turns would definitely make for a great series adaptation!
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