Book review and synopsis for Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson, an eventful family drama about two siblings whose mother reveals their family history to them in her will.
Black Cake is about two siblings, Benny and Byron, who reunite after their mother has recently passed away. They learn that she has left them an inheritance of a frozen black cake in the fridge and a recording of her telling them the truth about her past and where she comes from.
Black cake is a desert that originates from the Caribbean Islands but relies on influences from other countries as well, resulting in a mixed history that is reflected in the story of this family as well. As Benny and Byron follow her story, they start to learn about the person their mother truly was and they come to understand what their roots are.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot Summary
Section-by-Section SummarySee the Section-by-Section Summary of Black CakeQuick Plot Summary Summary (Spoilers)
In Part I, Byron and Benny Bennett are two estranged adult siblings who reunite at their mother lawyer’s office for the reading of their mother’s will after her death from an illness. Benny has been estranged from the family for six years, since Thanksgiving 2010 when she came out as bisexual to her family. Their father, Bert Bennett, died a few years after that before Benny could reconcile with them. Benny attended the funeral, but didn’t say anything to Byron or her mother.
Today, the siblings learn that their mother has left them a black cake (a traditional desert originating from the Caribbean Islands) and a recording which their mother, Eleanor, made prior to her death. The lawyer, Mr. Mitch, also informs them that they have a half-sister.
As they listen to the recording, Eleanor launches into the story of Covey, a girl growing up in the Caribbean in the 1950’s. Along with her best friend, Bunny, the two were avid swimmers. Covey’s mother Mathilda ran a bakery with the assistance of her mother’s helper, Pearl. Covey’s father, Lin, was the son of a Chinese immigrant who ran two small shops on the island. However, Lin was also a gambler, a habit that damaged the family’s finances and eventually drove Mathilda away.
When Covey turns 16, she meets Gibbs Grant, a surfer, and falls in love with him. The two are inseparable and make plans to leave the islands together someday. Around that time, however, there is a fire that damages one of Lin’s shops. Lin’s financial troubles prompt him to borrow from “Little Man” Henry, an unsavory loan shark who is rumored to have once killed a woman who rejected him. Eventually, Little Man’s attentions turn to Covey, and Lin’s indebtedness to him force him to agree to a marriage between Covey and Little Man, which Covey desperately does not want. Gibbs is leaving to go to school in London and tries to convince Covey to sneak away with him, but Covey tells him she’ll figure something else out.
When the wedding day arrives, Pearl poisons the top layer of cake (which the couple brings home) and decorates with lilac flowers (which Covey dislikes) to let her know. But during the toasts, Little Man chokes and dies, and Covey disappears. Covey then secretly finds Pearl who gives her some money that her mother had left her and the contact information for a woman Mathilda knew who can help Covey get off the island.
By fall of 1965, Covey is living in London under the name Coventina Brown and working as a nanny, though she later becomes Eleanor Bennett. On the islands, it’s assumed that Covey murdered her husband and fled. In the recording, Eleanor mother reaffirms that she is Covey and that the story she’d told them about growing up as an orphanage is a story she borrowed from someone else.
In Part II, Eleanor continues the recording with the story of Eleanor “Elly” Douglas. Elly was raised in an orphanage and met Covey in London when they were both employed as nurses. Elly convinces Covey to leave London with her so they can pursue other dreams (Elly hopes to be a geologist), but they take a train that crashes and Elly is killed. When someone assumes that Covey is the one who died, Covey doesn’t correct them, knowing that it’s an opportunity to leave her past as a murder suspect behind. Instead, Covey takes on Elly’s identity, going by Eleanor Douglas.
Meanwhile, on the Islands, they hear about Covey’s death. Bunny has continued swimming since Covey left. Bunny was dating a guy named Jimmy and left him to be with a woman, Patsy, though she soon learned she was pregnant with Jimmy’s child. Bunny ended up moving to England to continue her career as a distance swimmer along with Patsy as the two raised Bunny’s son and Patsy’s younger brother.
As “Eleanor Douglas”, Covey moves to Scotland and takes a job doing office work. Things are going smoothly until one day, her boss rapes her. Eleanor soon leaves that job, but finds out she is pregnant. She takes refuge in a shelter run by nuns, but they eventually force her to adopt out her baby. A few months later, Eleanor spots Gibbs Grant. Despite knowing she should be cutting ties with the past, she calls out to him. Gibbs decides to give up his own past and changes his name to Bert Bennett so they can be together…
To be completed on 3/19/22.
For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.
By Jennifer Marie Lin on Mar 17th, 2022 (Last Updated Mar 19th, 2022)
So, I started Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson when it first came out and got distracted by other things. The past two weeks or so, I’ve been waylaid in bed after some complicated oral surgery, so now that I’m on the mend, I thought I would finish it up. This means, however, that I am reading this while still hopped up on Codeine and other painkillers so … yeah. That’s the situation over here.
Anyway, Black Cake is about two estranged, mixed-race siblings, Benny and Byron, whose mother has recently passed away. She leaves them a frozen black cake — a desert that originates from the Caribbean Islands but relies on influences from other countries as well, resulting in a mixed inheritance that is reflected in the story of this family as well — in the fridge and a recording of her telling them the truth about her past and where she comes from. As Benny and Byron follow her story, they realize they knew very little about the person their mother truly was, and they comes to realize how complicated their roots are.
Black Cake makes for eventful reading with lots of ups and downs in the story of this family. There is a lot of plot and the book moves briskly forward from one event to the next. If you’re someone who likes family dramas, but feels like some of them are a little too “slow” — this might be a good pick for you.
Wilkerson also does a good job of pacing out the small “reveals” about these siblings and their inheritance — in the form of their culture and where they came from — which makes for satisfying reading as an image of their family history begins to take shape. I appreciated how she goes back and revisits certain details that perhaps seemed minor or unimportant earlier on in the story.
Overall, I would say that I found reading Black Cake to be an enjoyable experience, but with some important caveats.
Black Cake longs to be a book about understanding your identity, about a mixing of cultures and about reconciling your past, but it doesn’t take the time to properly delve into a lot of these things. It hits a lot of plot points very quickly without stopping to let the characters reflect or offer insights into their journeys.
It’s a shame because there’s so many plot points book could have chosen to go more in depth into — like forced adoption, arranged marriage, sexual assault, gambling addiction, violence based on sexual identity, domestic violence, blending of cultures, cultural appropriation, police brutality, and so on — that it seems like there’s missed opportunities at every turn.
For me, it ended up feeling like there was a little too much going on in the book and not enough thorough exploration of the multitude of issues it was bringing up. It sort of just threw stuff out there and kept moving. I imagine some people won’t mind this so much, though, if you generally prefer more fast-paced books.
Read it or Skip it?
Black Cake is a plot-driven family drama that makes for eventful reading. It turned out to be more soap opera-y and surface-level than I’d hoped, but the action-packed plot helps to briskly move the story along. The lack of deeper reflection left the book feeling somewhat forgettable to me, but it wasn’t an unenjoyable read. I found that the way Wilkerson unravels the story of this family pretty satisfying as it goes along.
I would give this a “maybe” recommendation as a book club pick. There’s certainly plenty of stuff that the book covers, but its coverage of any of these topics seems a little too superficial to allow for a lot of in-depth, meaty discussion. If your book club is really interested in the premise, you could give it a shot. The last book I read that I thought would make for a compelling and substantive book club discussion was The School for Good Mothers.
See Black Cake on Amazon.
Black Cake Audiobook Review
Narrator: Lynnette R. Freeman & Simone Mcintyre
Length: 12 hours
Hear a sample of the Black Cake audiobook on Libro.fm.
- What did you like or dislike about the book Black Cake?
- What is the significance of Black Cake in this story and why do you think Wilkerson uses it as a focal point of her story?
- Why do you think Eleanor decides to tell this story to her children in her will as opposed to before her death? Why do you think she decides to hide so much of herself from her family?
- What did you think of the character of Benny and the path that her life has taken?
- At one point, Eleanor mentions how she found herself feeling like she’d brought her struggles onto herself by “refusing to accept the life that others had expected me to live” and later realized that was how she’d made Benny feel. In what ways were she and Benny trying to live based on other’s expectations, and do you think she was wrong in how she treated or handled her relationship with Benny?
- What did you think of the character of Byron and the path that his life as taken? Why do you think he became the person he was and do you think the work that he does (as a public persona promoting ocean and life sciences) is important?
- What did you think of Eleanor’s life story and the person she eventually became? Did you see her as a character you could root for?