Spanning more than half a century, Charmaine Wilkerson’s Black Cake (Ballantine Books 2022) is a sprawling family saga about family legacies, secrets, and treasures all wrapped up in those ties that bind. There’s a slow burn of a mystery that vibrates on the surface, but the heart of the novel is in the delicate threads of family spidering out from Covey. It’s a good novel to enter blindly, so here’s your warning.
The novel opens with two estranged siblings brought together by their mother’s attorney after her passing. She’d recorded a message for them. Benny and Bryon learn not only that they have another sibling, but that their mother and father had been living under assumed identities. The overriding mystery is who killed Covey’s first husband on their wedding day. Covey, who fled the ceremony and was presumed to be dead, was the main suspect. She left the island, wrapped in a cloak of fierce love and loyalty, and was given a new life. Covey would face another “death” and again, love would wrap around her and provide yet another life, this time with a familiar face.
There are a lot of relationships in the novel, but my favorite is Bunny and Covey. While I know it wasn’t the hook of the novel, I wish there had been less Benny and Byron and far more Bunny. Their relationship reminded me of Idgie and Ruth from Fried Green Tomatoes, and I craved more of that bond.
The novel POV-jumps and dances around a timeline, and some of the transitions aren’t as smooth as I would like, but Wilkerson writes in such a comforting and familiar manner that you don’t lose the thread. What I find the most problematic is the sheer number of different triggering events spanning the many characters. There’s rape, domestic violence, child abuse, police brutality, a few assaults, human trafficking, workplace discrimination and sexism, racial discrimination, post-colonial/diaspora issues, suicide, depression, infertility, etc. This goes back to me saying I wish there’d been less Byron and Benny.
That said, it’s a solid debut.
Read this book.