Review: Black Cake
Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson (2022)
Very sad to be giving this 2 stars. It started out so well! A 5-star beginning, that descended into confusion, boredom, and outlandish coincidences.
Byron and Benny (Benadetta) are the daughters of two Caribbean immigrants, living in California, and NYC respectively. When their mother, Eleanor, passes away, she leaves behind a homemade, frozen black cake (a traditional, Caribbean, rum-soaked fruit cake), and a voice recording instructing her two children to eat it together "when the time is right." Benny has been estranged from the family since before her father's death years before, so this is a tall order. The voice recording also details Eleanor's life before her children - some of which she has never spoken of before, not even to her husband - revealing decades of secrets, including a half sibling they knew nothing about.
This could have been such a powerful story about family, ancestry, and generational trauma. Instead I felt a sense of loss when, about 1/3 of the way through, the narrative spun out into too many characters, and so many brief inclusions of "important social issues" that the plot started to lose shape! Arranged marriage, forced adoption, domestic violence and rape, racism, gender and race discrimination, workplace discrimination, pollution, police brutality, gambling... the list goes on! And there isn't a single one that gets more than a few page's worth of attention. It's like Wilkerson decided that each chapter needed a controversial social issue to keep the story relevant. Instead, it bogged the story down entirely, and "became mired in the miasma of beating the reader over the head" (thanks to another reviewer for that phrase!).
Similarly, the things that happen in the novel are beyond coincidence. I mean, I love a good "chance meeting of two strangers who, as it turns out, have met before / share a common ancestor / or whatever." But one story can only sustain a few of those. When the entire narrative is made up of them... heavy handed
The chapters are short, go back and forth in time, and alternate between multiple narrators, making the whole thing feel disjointed - especially when you consider that almost every character has more than one name, so sometimes the chapter heading will be one name and sometimes another name - but are the same person. (I feel like I don't even know how to explain that without it sounding really confusing - which is just about right.)
UP NEXT: Ninth House (re-read) & Hell Bent, by Leigh Bardugo