BOOK CLUB: ‘Black Cake’ mixes together multiple themes for the perfect familial tale

Abigail Celoria, Culture Editor

The Seahawk’s March book club pick “Black Cake” is a treat from start to finish. If you are looking for a novel that explores identity and complex family ties, “Black Cake” is for you. Folding a mother’s tragic past into the present lives of her children, this novel brilliantly discusses how our origins, known to us or not, shape our lives.

Italy-based writer Charmaine Wilkerson made her debut as a novelist with “Black Cake.” Named one of the most anticipated books of 2022 by multiple publications, it lived up to its expectations. Less than three weeks after its release, the novel placed as number two on the New York Times best seller list of hardcover fiction. The novel’s accolades as the Read with Jenna February book club pick and the Booksellers Association’s February Indie Book of the Month only increased its buzz. “Black Cake” is now in development as a Hulu original series, thrilling fans of the novel with an adaptation so soon after its debut.

“Black Cake” backs this success with an incredible story deserving of its praise. The novel switches between two storylines, one beginning in the past in the 1960s and the other in the present of 2018. Byron and Benny, the estranged children of Eleanor Bennett, receive a strange summons from their deceased mother’s lawyer upon her death. She leaves for them a voice recording and a traditional Caribbean black cake to be shared when “the time is right.” As the siblings listen through their mother’s recording, her secret past comes to light and gives clarity as to the fate of the black cake. Bryon and Benny must struggle through the aftermath together, their lives forever altered by her revelations.

The novel ‘Black Cake’ by Charmaine Wilkerson is the story of two estranged siblings who come back together after their mother dies. (Amazon)

The past-and-present structure of “Black Cake” works well in telling its story. The book begins with Byron and Benny discovering the recording, with the immediate revelation of a lost sister drawing the reader’s intrigue. The story then switches to Eleanor’s past, beginning in her girlhood when she was not Eleanor Bennett, but Coventina Lyncook from the Caribbean. The mystery of her past is multi-layered, dragging both her children and the reader along as we wonder how the past will intersect with the present. By revealing the ultimate answers early on, Wilkerson allows herself the time to progress through the events that led Eleanor to her current reality. Thus, the mystery becomes more about the journey.

This emphasis on the journey is what drives the tension throughout “Black Cake.” It is not so much that we need to know “what” but “how” and “why.” In the first half of the book, learning about Eleanor’s past alongside Byron and Benny is the plot’s foremost drive. In the second, it switches to determining what is to be done with the black cake, now that all the necessary information is revealed. Byron and Benny remain a constant throughout this shift, their reactions and then the actions they take in the wake of what their mother revealed creating the grounding point of the novel. It is in their reconciliations—with the recording, each other and themselves following their mother’s life-altering account—that “Black Cake” creates such a compelling narrative.

While the past continues to progress, the present stays relatively fixed for the first portion of the book, serving as a stopping point to explore Byron and Benny’s reactions to their mother’s revelations. This creates the perfect opportunity for the reader to get to know them as characters and also understand their estranged past. Byron’s role as the dutiful child and successful scientist contrasts with Benny’s black-sheep personality to incite conflict between them. While their adult lives differ, though, it is not necessarily their differences that keep them apart but an unresolved misunderstanding of one another. Wilkerson skillfully uses this to emphasize the role that pride and a lack of communication have in strained familial ties.

While she highlights these things, Wilkerson makes another intelligent choice in never assigning blame to any of the characters. As the novel progresses, each character, through either the past or present timelines, gives their perspective on the strained situations their family has faced. While their issues seem somewhat black-and-white at first, Wilkerson uses the novel’s unwrapping pace to her advantage by highlighting the many emotional factors at play for each character. In this way, she expertly tackles the subject of family ties, depicting all that affects family relationships.

It is not just this that “Black Cake” explores, though. In both the past and present timelines, the story touches on friendships, romantic relationships, personal and racial identity, valuing tradition and even moral issues. They all blend together to the benefit of “Black Cake,” allowing the novel the scope to examine interpersonal relationships and personhood in a unique fictional situation. While Eleanor’s past is what makes the narrative technically entertaining by creating intrigue and obstacles in both timelines, Wilkerson brings out the deep reality within it. Consequences pool over to create a situation Eleanor cannot escape but also would not want to reverse for the love of her husband and children. The characters’ interconnectedness on each of these thematic levels continues through the novel’s end, allowing the effects of their actions on Eleanor to trickle into Byron and Benny’s lives.

The sense of nuance Wilkerson takes in tackling the themes of “Black Cake” is one of the novel’s greatest strengths. It is not often that one book expertly speaks on so many issues, especially when they all connect naturally in the way of human relationships. Wilkerson speaks on topics that not every reader may relate to—such as how race and sexuality factor into one’s treatment, specific cultural traditions and how secrets can alter one’s perception of their life—but brings it back to the character, allowing their specific situation to resonate with the reader out of sympathy.

The intertwining of themes creates a book that is rich in varied human experience, but at its core is one family’s story that any reader will enjoy. This novel is truly one of a kind in excellence and emotion.

A novel that juggles several complex themes, “Black Cake” mixes them all together for the ultimate heart-tugging treat.