Review: ‘Black Cake’ a delicious novel in bite-size pieces
“Black Cake” by Charmaine Wilkerson (Ballantine Books) Former journalist and short filmmaker Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel opens with a one-paragraph prologue titled “Then/1965.
“Black Cake” by Charmaine Wilkerson (Ballantine Books)
Former journalist and short story writer Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel opens with a one-paragraph prologue titled “Then/1965.” A man stands at the water’s edge, “waiting for his daughter’s body to be washed ashore”. The next page is titled “Now/2018” and we meet Byron and Benny, estranged siblings who see each other for the first time in eight years at their mother’s funeral.
Chapters come fast and furious after that. It takes some getting used to at first, but eventually you settle into a rhythm and enjoy reflecting together on what’s going on between each short snippet. It’s 382 pages of flash fiction to fill those 53 years between yesterday and today.
It all adds up to a whole story. Each character has multiple stories. There’s the face they present to their fellow characters in the novel, and then there’s their real backstory, which often subverts that public face. Or as Benny wonders in her head as she struggles with her parents’ story: “This is what they’ve always been, an African-American family of Caribbean descent, a clan of stories unpublished and half-listed cultures.”
The novel really puts the “omni” in its omniscient narrator, with a plot mostly driven by internal dialogues and flashbacks. Like the flash fiction format, it’s confusing at first at times, but ultimately rewarding when the whole story comes together at the end. There’s a lot more to recommend here, including important themes of race, identity and environmental protection, as well as the power of family recipes to convey love without words, but the pleasure is in the reading. As Wilkerson writes near the end as Benny and Byron come to terms with their family narrative: They “sit there in silence for a while, thinking of small but profound legacies. About how untold stories shape people’s lives, both when they’re held back and when they’re revealed.
“Black Cake” is a satisfying literary meal, heralding the arrival of a new novelist to watch.
Rob Merrill, The Associated Press