Black Cake is a cake full to bursting with fruits, soaked in rum, and browned with sugar (hence the name.)
Sounds delicious, right?
Well, much like a first attempt at a new recipe that JUST misses the mark…Black Cake had all the promise and potential of a five-star delight…but couldn’t quite get the blend right.
Benny and Byron used to be attached at the proverbial hip, brother and sister who happily did everything together. Time and circumstance have led them away from one another, as Benny’s life choices (from the personal to her career choice) have left her a bit ostracized from the family. Byron has taken the ‘right’ path, but still has so many questions about the past, his mother, and how life has led him to this place.
When their mother passes away, both children are summoned to listen to their mother one last time—via audio recording. What they don’t expect to find is not a breakdown of assets, or a traditional will, but that their mother was holding secrets—life-altering secrets—and has chosen to finally share them now. As her tales unfold, Benny and Byron are transported back in time, and a shocking series of events leaves them both reeling. This is not your typical inheritance—and Benny and Byron have choices to make. Will the interesting and unexpected turns of fate bring them closer together, once and for all? Or will their mother’s stunning revelations prove once and for all that the past is MEANT to stay buried?
Black Cake is, if nothing else, a lesson in Identity: what it means to be who you are, how heritage can either define you or hold you captive, and how place and opportunity can shape your destiny. At first, I was deeply wound into Benny and Byron’s story, and was intrigued by these narrators and their differing perspectives. The premise was sound, and I thought by story’s end I would have a firm sense of WHO these two were and who they could become down the line. At first, the book felt balanced: we got small glimpses into mother Eleanor’s life without losing hold of the present-day narrative.
As time went on, however, the central theme of the story became more and more divergent, as character after character was introduced, new locations and complications arose, and the book started to lose focus—and lose my attention. The dramatic ‘twists’ became a bit repetitive, and there was a heavy emphasis on certain themes such as abuse, without any true conclusion. Much like in Of Women and Salt, the moment I started to connect to a new character’s story line, we jumped to another point in time, a new location, or back to present day, and it left me feeling a bit underwhelmed.
Sometimes, you can also tell a lot from an author’s note, and it was clear here that Wilkerson did her research about the time periods, cultures, and professions she explores in the book. Her final words alone confirm that Wilkerson is a strong and gifted writer, and that if the execution of this one had been a bit tighter and a bit cleaner, the emotions could have taken center stage and carried the novel.
While the novel’s through line is purported to be solely Eleanor’s recipe for cake, this book touched on so many other deep themes, without quite giving any of them the depth they needed to sing. I have every confidence this author has more intricate and interesting stories to tell, so I look forward to seeing what she writes in the future—when she hopefully gives her ideas just a LITTLE bit longer to bake.
3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 based on the author’s note alone
Many thanks to NetGalley, Kathleen Quinlan at Ballantine, and Charmaine Wilkerson for a gifted copy of this book in exchange for an honest review!
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