Book review: “Black Cake” by Charmaine Wilkerson explores the complex parent-child relationship3 min read
by KATY ROSE PRICE
“Black Cake” by Charmaine Wilkerson is a complicated read that requires you to follow multiple threads and paths as the narrative travels between the 1960s and 2018. At the same time, Wilkerson employs strategic pacing with short, enticing chapters that make this novel a fast, vibrant read. The chapters shift between characters’ perspectives, giving readers a glimpse into the minds of each character as they cope with loss and a new reality. The novel is a multigenerational family saga that follows the lives of three generations of women. Published in 2022, this is Wilkerson’s debut novel, marking her place as one of the up-and-coming authors of the near future.
Somewhere on an unidentified Caribbean island in 1965, a bride throws herself into the ocean after the mysterious death of her new husband, a gangster who is significantly older than her, and is never seen again in her village. In the year 2018, estranged siblings Byron and Benny are forced to reconcile when they learn of their mother Eleanor’s death and the eight-hour audio recording she has left them. The siblings are also given a note that reads, “B and B, there’s a small black cake in the freezer for you. I want you to sit down and share the cake when the time is right. You’ll know when.”
The novel is a deft exploration of the complex and nuanced relationship between parent and child. Wilkerson explores how our relationship with our parents changes as we grow older as she also examines the impact of race, class, culture and trauma on the parent-child relationship. Eleanor reveals secrets, stories and parts of her life that she had never shared with her children, changing what they thought they knew about themselves, their lineage and their parents. 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.
Byron and Benny had a sense of identity before Eleanor’s death. They were Southern Californian and the children of Caribbean immigrants who had lost their own parents. While they each had their own trials and obstacles, they were relatively well-situated and understood their places in society. However, upon hearing the story of their mother’s convoluted journey for the very first time, their prior-established identities begin to unravel and transform; their parents were not the people they thought they were, but it’s too late to ask questions. All Byron and Benny have now is each other… or so they think.
The thread that weaves through the novel is the black cake. Black cake is a dense, rum-soaked, fruit-packed dessert that is a Caribbean tradition, served at Christmas, Easter and weddings. As Byron notes, “it was essentially a plum pudding handed down to the Caribbeans by colonizers from a cold country.” In learning this traditional recipe, Eleanor was taught how to soak fruits for months beforehand, letting the flavors develop and deepen, then incorporated into the batter of the cake.
The cake is a timeless tradition Eleanor passed down to her children, for they would help her make one every year for her and her husband’s wedding anniversary, and they even buried her husband with a piece. After her death, the cake she’s left for her children serves as a symbol of their family’s history, even though it’s entirely different than what they thought it was.
As Byron and Benny reconcile what their mother’s revelations mean for their lives going forward, the black cake provides some comfort, reminding them of their mother’s love and affection for them. Just as it did for Byron and Benny, the cake provided Eleanor with solace as an uprooted, orphaned young woman, reminding her of her own mother and the special time they spent together years ago. Byron and Benny have the task of understanding their mother’s past, and the cake is pivotal in aiding the siblings with unearthing their family story, reassessing their own sense of self and bringing together family members.
“Black Cake” is a powerful exploration of the complexities of the parent-child relationship, for Wilkerson expertly reflects on how your identity can change in a split-second. Her novel shows how our relationships with our parents can shape our lives, identities and the lives of future generations, and how we can learn to navigate the challenges and joys of these relationships.