Book Review: Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake
Charmaine Wilkerson

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What better way to start off the new year than to share a great book I just finished? Black Cake is Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel about family, secrets, race, identity, displacement, and tradition in which the author asks the recurring question, “What are you willing to do?” This book is loaded with important themes and wrapped around characters and situations that are both unique to the story and universal to readers’ experiences.

The story begins as Byron and Benny Bennett meet to listen to a recording their mother has made before her death. As part of her final wishes, Eleanor Bennett insisted that they listen to the recording together and that her adult children, one day, find a way to share the black cake she has stored in her freezer. Byron and Benny have barely spoken to each other since a disastrous Thanksgiving eight years earlier. Their estrangement was further set two years later when Benny was an apparent no-show at their father’s funeral.

Set outside Los Angeles and on an unnamed Caribbean island, readers learn about Eleanor’s childhood, how she met and later married Bert Bennett and how the couple moved to California to raise a family. Eleanor and her husband, Bert were always vague about their childhoods, saying only that they were orphans. And although their children sometimes wondered, they never pressed for details. Eleanor made sure, however, to teach Benny how to make the traditional black cake, prepared with fruits soaked in rum and port. “This is your heritage,” she tells her children.

Byron and Benny’s lives are about to be upended in ways they can’t imagine. The timing could be either terrible or just right because they are both at crossroads. Byron, a highly successful ocean scientist with a huge social media following, was recently passed over for the director’s position at the institute where he works. In addition, as a black man, he has been pulled over by police too many times. Benny has floundered since dropping out of the elite college she had attended, moving several times while studying cooking and art. Being light-skinned, Benny experienced a different kind prejudice at college and felt a dividing tension and ignorance between her black and white friends. She has also struggled with her sexuality, part of the reason for the Thanksgiving rift in her family.

As I mentioned earlier, this book is all about making hard choices and deciding what you are willing to do to go forward. In addition to choices, each questions how their inherited physical and personality traits fit into their identities. Physically, Benny is light and Byron is dark. Benny also has a “spirit of defiance” just like her mother. Now that they know the whole story, they will need to make their own hard decisions and accept their altered ideas of family and identity. In the end, Eleanor reminds her children, despite the secrets she’s kept, “Who I am is your mother. This is the truest part of me.”

I thoroughly enjoyed reading Black Cake and recommend it to all readers. I want to thank F for recommending it to me!

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25 thoughts on “Book Review: Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

  1. I always enjoy books that make me think about social and moral issues while maintaining an interesting story line. Black Cake looks like it fills that bill. Thanks for the recommendation Barbara.

  2. I have it on my Kindle already and am excited to read it. Great review. I found you and followed on Facebook too (I’m When Women Inspire over there) xx

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