Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Reviewed by Katy Zignego (Library Staff)

I refuse to believe that Black Cake is author Charmaine Wilkerson’s first novel. It is just too darn good to be her first try. I learned from reading the book jacket that she is a nonfiction writer of some standing, but her first novel showcases a mastery of fiction that few writers ever achieve.

The eponymous black cake is a Jamaican rum cake that Eleanor Bennett has left in the freezer for her children, Byron and Benedetta, to share after her death. She has also left them a recording that contains many revelations about her life, that she never chose to share with them while she was alive.

The story is told from several different characters’ points of view, and one of the greatest achievements of Wilkerson’s work is that each character’s voice rings true. The technique of multiple narrators is difficult for even seasoned novelists to manage, and rarely do all the narrators feel equally authentic. But Wilkerson writes the voice of an elderly Chinese-Jamaican man as easily as she writes a fortyish Black American woman.

The layers of symbolism are something else that one doesn’t expect to encounter in a first novel. The black cake itself, made from ingredients gathered to the Jamaica from around the world, is the concrete symbol of Caribbean identity (or lack thereof). Eleanor’s turbulent narrative highlights how she struggled to establish her own identity over and over again, while all of her children face identity crises in the aftermath of her death. Wilkerson beautifully integrates symbols and meditations on the theme of identity into every character’s arc.

My only concern about Charmaine Wilkerson is that Black Cake will be her first and last novel. Occasionally, a novelist produces an earth-shattering debut, then nothing (notable) ever again. These one-hit wonder novels are often semi-autobiographical–To Kill A Mockingbird, Bastard Out of Carolina–and seem to be the authors’ cris de coeur about the conflicts in their own lives. I desperately hope that Wilkerson can go to the well again and again, because I very much enjoy reading her writing.

Located in Adult Fiction (FIC WILKERSON)

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