Black Cake – Charmaine Wilkerson

I wanted to like this novel way more than I did. I kept waiting for the story of Eleanor Bennett to be more than what it appeared to be, but that never happened.

When their mother dies, adult siblings Byron and Benny reunite (after a years-long estrangement) to bury her, but also to listen to the recording she left for them, which recounts the story of a girl named Covey.

B and B, I know, I need to explain why you never knew any of this. But it won’t make any sense if I don’t start at the beginning.

You children need to know about your family, about where we came from, about how I really met your father. You two need to know about your sister.

Sister?! This revelation is shocking to the siblings. Over the course of an afternoon, Benny and Byron listen to their mother’s voice and readers will be taken on a journey that spans decades.

This isn’t only about your sister. There are other people involved, so just bear with me. Everything goes back to the island and what happened there more than fifty years ago. The first thing you need to know about is a girl named Covey.

My main problem with Black Cake is that it is all tell. I never felt as though I was inhabiting any of these character’s lives. I was told what I needed to know before being shuffled off to the next character/scene -and there are a lot of characters and a lot of moving parts in this story. (And at almost 400 pages…) The story itself was interesting and the writing was fine, but I just never settled into the narrative. Maybe that’s a me thing because the accolades are numerous and who am I to disagree?

Ultimately, this is a story about family and the secrets we sometimes keep from them. Benny and Byron really shouldn’t have been so surprised that their mother had a life before they came along. Don’t we all keep secrets from the people we love to some degree? Wilkerson also offers some commentary about racism and the environment (Byron is an ocean scientist, so there’s lots of talk about the health of our oceans) that feel less organic and more didactic. Then there are all the convenient plot – I won’t call them twists – contrivances.

This is a debut novel, and it’s an ambitious one. It didn’t necessarily work for me, but so what? Loads of people love it and it’s definitely worth a read.

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