“I write about foods with a strong sense of place,” notes a character in Black Cake. The same could be said about its debut author, Charmaine Wilkerson, whose exquisitely paced family drama begins on a small unnamed Caribbean island in 1965 and quickly shifts to 2018, where it makes stops in London, Scotland, California and Rome. Readers will quickly find themselves immersed in a mysterious, gripping journey, one that unfolds in brief but bountiful chapters and even includes a suspected murder.
When Eleanor Bennett dies in 2018, she leaves a recording with her lawyer, instructing her two adult children to listen to its full eight hours together. Her son, Byron, is a renowned ocean scientist working on mapping the ocean floor, and his sister, Benny, is a bit of a lost soul who left the family eight years ago. “You children need to know about your family, about where we come from, about how I really met your father,” Eleanor says. “You two need to know about your sister.”
This revelation is shocking; Byron and Benny had no idea that such a sister existed. In addition to her deathbed message, Eleanor has also left a black cake in the freezer for Benny and Byron to share “when the time is right.” The confection, a Caribbean version of plum pudding, is a family favorite and figures prominently—and creatively—throughout the novel.
The sea is a strong presence in Black Cake, its hidden depths paralleling the many veiled events of Eleanor’s past. The innate pull of the ocean, especially warm Caribbean waters, influences and transforms several of Wilkerson’s characters. As the family lawyer muses about Eleanor’s oceanographer son, he says, “The oceans are a challenge. And what about a person’s life? How do you make a map of that?” In Eleanor’s case, that map is full of surprises, and Wilkerson skillfully charts its course, showing “how untold stories shape people’s lives, both when they are withheld and when they are revealed.”
Wilkerson navigates multiple points of view and time frames while addressing—always with just the right touch—issues of domestic violence, race, sexual identity, colonialism, prejudice and more. Fans of family dramas by Ann Patchett, Brit Bennett and Karen Joy Fowler should take note. Black Cake marks the launch of a writer to watch, one who masterfully plumbs the unexpected depths of the human heart.