Black Cake: So Many Secrets

Let me ask you, reader, how well do you know your parents? Do you know their stories? Do you know all the paths that led them to their current circumstances? Of course, some of you may answer yes to all these questions, which might be accurate, but I urge you to dig a little deeper if you are inclined. I suspect some hidden tales have yet to be unveiled. But only if you are really curious. To be truthful, it’s not something I’ve thought about much until I read the novel Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson.

Black Cake is a novel that spans several decades and centers on the Bennetts, a Caribbean family currently living in California. Eleanor Bennett, the matriarchy of the family, records a voice audio before her death. She wishes that her estranged children, Benny and Byron, listen to the audio together and share a traditional Caribbean black cake she leaves in the freezer. Initially, Benny and Byron question everything they know as they listen to the audio, and their mother discloses dark family secrets. But as the novel progresses, they eventually bond as their mother reveals more of her tragic past. Of course, the nostalgic family memories of preparing black cake also connect them. The book frequently moves from the present to the past, allowing the reader to witness the siblings’ reactions as they listen to their mother’s story. In addition, the book touches on family dynamics, friendships, forced adoptions, relationships, identity, racism, and sexuality.

This one was not a favorite. The book starts off very slowly, and as it progresses, all of the “shocking” twists and turns advertised are a bit obvious, eliminating all suspense. Predictability does not necessarily derail all books, but unfortunately, it did in this case. Also, there were too many characters and entirely too many subplots. I usually do not mind multiple points of view in books because I think done correctly; it adds depth. However, in this case, keeping up with all the characters and side stories was exhausting and felt a bit forced.

I was not a big fan of the author’s use of the audio by Eleanor to relay her entire life story to her children; it seemed unfair and sophomoric. That’s a lot of information for a parent to leave for their children to digest by themselves. In addition, the book might have fared better if all of these deep topics had been communicated in person, allowing more depth in the two main characters, Benny and Byron. So although the author thoroughly fleshed several subplots, Benny and Byron lacked personality.

Identifying the specific Caribbean island is important and a missed opportunity. This is further highlighted by the mention of specific cities in Europe or America. It’s basically the same as writing a novel set in an African country and just referring to Africa throughout the book without acknowledging the diverse terrain of the African continent and the various ethnicities and cultures it houses.

This is not a book I would recommend, but if you are curious about how food can bring a family together, this may be your book.