BookBrowse Reviews Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

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Black Cake

A Novel

by Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson X
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2022, 400 pages

    Nov 2022, 416 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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About this Book



Black Cake is a captivating debut that centers around the revelation of one woman's secrets.

Charmaine Wilkerson's first novel, Black Cake, tells the story of Eleanor Bennett and her adult children Byron and Benedetta (aka Benny). As the story opens, the siblings are meeting with their mother's estate lawyer, who tells them she's left a long recording, stipulating that upon her death, they must listen to it together, in his presence. He ominously tells them, "You need to be prepared." The pair are reluctant at first; the family had a falling out eight years ago and the two haven't spoken since, but the attorney insists. As the tape plays, Byron and Benny hear their mother talk about her past, revealing secret after secret that sets them reeling.

There are two major threads interwoven to make up the book's intriguing plot. The first is Eleanor's tale, about which not much can be said here without introducing spoilers; suffice it to say it's a story of a person doing what they must to survive. The other is about the relationship between Byron and Benny, the latter of whom feels rejected by her family after revealing her own secret, prompting her to sever all communication with her mother, father and brother. Both plotlines are absorbing and well-written. Eleanor's is fast-paced and unpredictable, propelling the story along at a good clip, but I was particularly drawn to the narrative involving her children. I found their interactions especially realistic; neither understands the other's point of view, and they each blame the other for the rift that's occurred. They long for reconciliation, but each is angry, feeling they're owed an apology that never comes. Both stories ask whether it's possible to truly know another person, and contemplate the risk we take when we show others our true selves. These themes struck a deep chord with me.

The characters, too, are exceptionally well-drawn. Wilkerson states in her Author's Note:

Most of the characters in Black Cake are people who do not quite fit into the boxes that others have set up for them. They struggle against stereotypes and the gulf between their interests and ambitions and the lives that other people expect them to lead, based on gender, culture, or class.

This is one of those uncommon cases when an author's statement of what she was trying to achieve is a perfect description of the result. It's her success here that makes the book a real gem.

Although I absolutely loved the novel in general, it certainly has its flaws. Many of the major plot points depend on coincidence; one or two such occurrences might be overlooked, but there are several that strain credulity. Additionally, the timeline jumps around a lot, particularly toward the end of the book, making it feel somewhat disjointed. This is exacerbated by very short chapters as well as the wrapping up of every single last loose end. While I enjoyed knowing what happened to all the characters, I think it would have been a tighter book had some of these sections been edited out. Finally, Black Cake includes a few chapters about issues that are important to acknowledge, notably racial prejudice and climate change, but that do not contribute to the plot.

While Black Cake's technical difficulties might be a turnoff for some, its highlights more than make up for its imperfections. I found it an interesting and entertaining read, and a truly exceptional one given it's Wilkerson's first effort. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and recommend the novel for most audiences. Book groups will find it offers a number of great topics for discussion surrounding family dynamics and how one reconciles with one's past.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in April 2022, and has been updated for the December 2022 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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