Charmaine Wilkerson’s Black Cake is a debut novel that takes readers from the balmy shores of a Caribbean island to England, America, and beyond. When matriarch Eleanor Bennett passes away, she shocks her adult children Benny and Byron with the revelation that the true story of her life is very different to what she has told them all these years. To their surprise, alongside their mother’s beloved black cake recipe, Benny and Byron also inherit hours of their mother’s voice recordings and with it generations worth of family secrets.
The novel spans decades, flipping between different periods of the Bennett family life and rotating through different narrators. The reader is completely immersed in all perspectives of this story as we learn why Eleanor was pushed away from her Caribbean home as a teenager. Forced to embark on a daunting path from the UK to America all alone, we discover how she built the life she manages to provide for her children. A recurring motif in this novel is the titular imagery of “black cake” – a Caribbean fruit cake recipe that Eleanor Bennett teaches to her young daughter, adamant her children will have this connection to their ancestral home. Wilkerson has discussed in an interview with BookPage, how “the cake symbolises the history of this family” and how Eleanor’s children “don’t know the half of what their parents went through.” Will their mother’s confession alter the path of Benny and Byron’s life?
Black Cake is full of deeply layered but often fraught relationships. Benny is almost estranged from her brother at the time of Eleanor’s death; difficult conversations about her identity having pushed her away. The novel explores whether these family revelations may help Benny and Byron heal their fractured bond. As well as this sibling relationship, Eleanor’s own relationships are paramount in this book, with her unbreakable bond with her husband demonstrating the barriers that love can face, and sometimes, overcome. Some of the most vivid and engaging scenes from the novel are centred around the island where Eleanor swam the ocean waves with her best friend Bunny, both intrinsically connected to nature, and eventually to each other. Interestingly, Wilkerson did not start writing Black Cake with the intention of it becoming a novel, but instead began with short stories of two friends swimming the Caribbean shores, and soon realised the expanding universe that was developing.
The novel covers a multitude of years, places and people, allowing Wilkerson to excel in drawing together a fast-paced and gripping narrative. There is a hugely intimate aspect to the lives and perspectives of these characters. Black Cake adeptly takes the reader through different historical periods, from the experience of a Caribbean immigrant in 1960s Britain and onto the 21st century United States. Wilkerson explores Byron’s experiences as a mixed-race scientist and Benny’s identity as a gay mixed-race woman, grappling with herself and her path in life. Being from Jamaica herself, and now living in Rome, Wilkerson shines a light on the Caribbean diaspora and the connections people can have to their homelands through food and stories.
Black Cake will draw you in and take you on the sweeping Bennet family journey, with Wilkerson seeing it as “the power of a story to shape who you are and how you see yourself.” This is an emotive novel that effortlessly explores the bonds of family, the significance of our past and the lengths people can go to, to make the life they deserve for themselves.
Wilkerson’s story has recently been made into a seven-part Hulu series with Oprah Winfrey serving as an executive producer. I eagerly await to see the transference of these characters and bonds to a screen.