What readers think of Black Cake, plus links to write your own review.

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Black Cake

A Novel

by Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson X
Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
  • Critics' Opinion:

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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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Skillfully plotted and beautifully written
Thanks to Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine Books & NetGalley for a digital advance reader's copy. All comments and opinions are my own.

This debut was definitely in the "amazing" category and worth all of its 5 stars! It's a story of family, identity, and tradition, told from the points of view of several of the characters. The multiple voices narrating the characters' struggles, triumphs, and histories assist in bridging one generation to the next. As Ballentine Books' Executive Editor Hilary Teeman says, this is "a saga about a mother’s secrets, a family’s uncertain future, and the legacy of what we inherit through our recipes, our pasts, and often our untold stories."

The first characters we meet are brother and sister Byron and Benny in current day, as they listen to the recording their recently deceased mother left for them, narrating the previously unknown story of her life. The author adds characters and situations, locations and various historical periods a little at a time in each of the short and quick moving chapters, as one might add recipe ingredients which will come together in a delicious story to feast upon. Sorry, I couldn't resist the food allusions.

I really liked the way the characters discover their connections to each other as we learn of their secrets and how the novel all comes together to illustrate the concepts of home and family, longing, loss, second chances, and love. One of the most important themes that comes up repeatedly is risk, and several characters demonstrate their determination to take a specific risk in order to survive. Author Wilkerson explains that "Most of the characters in this novel are people who do not quite fit into the boxes that others expect of them. They struggle against stereotypes and the gulf between their interests and ambitions and the lives which other people expect them to lead, based on gender, culture, or class. Their difficulties are both universal and specific to the times and places in which they live."

Skillfully plotted and beautifully written, I couldn't stop thinking about this deliciously multi-layered story. I highly recommend it.
Power Reviewer
Cathryn Conroy

An Overrated Novel That Is One Big Soap Opera: Melodramatic, Overly Sentimental, and Slow-Paced
Whine. Whine. Whine. It seems like that is all the characters are doing. And at 400 pages, that gets old. Fast.

But let's back up. This (overrated) novel by Charmaine Wilkerson tells the multigenerational story of a family from an unnamed island in the Caribbean, and the tale is woven by jumping back and forth in time and place and character. While this is a common literary technique, it takes real skill to pull it off. Wilkerson doesn't have that skill. The extremely short chapters—some just a paragraph or two long—switch topics and characters and timelines so quickly and at times so randomly that the effect is jarring and disorienting.

This is the story of Covey, short for Coventina, the daughter of Johnny Lyncook and Mathilda Brown. He is Chinese. She is Black. But Covey is soon heartbroken when Mathilda disappears one night. She runs away from a life she hated but leaves behind a confused little girl, who is raised by Pearl, the family's cook and housekeeper. Because of something truly horrific that her father does, Covey also disappears from the island, fleeing to England and eventually adopting the name Eleanor. She then leads a convoluted undercover life that is filled with tragedy and fleeting bits of happiness. The other part of the story is told after Covey's death, when her grown children, Byron and Benny, listen to a tape-recording Covey has made, explaining everything. This sends them into a tailspin because it has turned their supposed family history and identity into a pile of lies. And that's saying something because both are already filled with resentment and bitterness long before their mother even died. When the pieces of this long, dragged-out story finally come together, the ending is treacly sweet.

The novel is one big soap opera—and not a fun, sassy soap opera, but rather one that is melodramatic, overly sentimental, and very slow-paced. One horrible thing after another happens. Byron and Benny are consumed with so much anger toward each other that they don't speak, a classic TV soap opera ploy to limit critical communication and further the ridiculous plot. And when they do talk, they whine. Incessantly.

This is such a shame because the story Wilkerson is trying to tell is an important one. But the meaning, import, and historical significance of that story is lost in the amateurish structuring of the novel.

One clever part of the novel is how Wilkerson uses food, beginning with the traditional Caribbean recipe of black cake, a kind of plum pudding that takes months to make, to tell the characters' stories, hopes, and dreams. Unfortunately, the novel is as dense as the cake.
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