Book of the Month: Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Hi folks,

It's another Book of the Month. Let's jump into it. The Book of this Month is Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson. I went into this book really excited and just assumed it would be a HIT. I had really high hopes for this, and while in a lot of ways it met those expectations; in others, it fell short terribly. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's dive in.

Black Cake –  a debut novel – is about a woman, Eleanor Bennet, who has just died and left a puzzling mystery and inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a black cake from long-running family recipe and a voice recording. Through the course of this message, Eleanor shares about her past, untold secrets, and a long-lost daughter (and sibling to Byron and Benny) that no one knew about. As this story unfolds, we learn about the memories, secrets, betrayals, and a thread of connections intricately woven by the author. The kicker is Eleanor has left a message that her kids can only eat this cake together with their long-lost sister (who they didn't know existed until the recording); and they have to do all of this while estranged from each other. Byron, a successful Ph.D. and Oceanologist, and Benny, a stubborn, spoiled-rotten queer artist living in New York must confront everything they knew about themselves, their mother, and their family. 

Wilkerson transports us to worlds unknown through historical tales of the Caribbean, which span several decades, the mass migration of those in the Caribbean to the UK and the United States in the  60s; ethnic tensions that existed between Chinese immigrants and locals in the Caribbean; how the UK, in the post-World War II years embarked on an aggressive campaign to recruit young folks to study nursing in the UK and yet these Caribbean trainees found themselves harassed, discriminated against, and with limited work opportunities; and the Caribbean-UK immigrant experience. 

The book is told from multiple perspectives and moves from present-day in Byron and Benny's lives; their upbringing; and their mother's growing up in the 60s. Although we are so used to children of immigrants telling the story, in this case Eleanor does the telling herself. The writing is incisive, direct, and clear enough to draw the reader in. But soon, the simplicity also pushes you away. The story is dynamic, multi-faceted, and the inclusion of the black cake as the glue that holds it all together is truly masterful. But even that falls apart quickly enough. It is a multi-generation saga that leaves you wanting for more, in the worst possible way. 

To start with, instead of confronting unique issues that a light-skinned person of Caribbean AND Chinese ancestry might confront, she resorts to the low hanging [but just as important] fruit of police brutality and other common anti-blackness that black folks encounter even when it feels very out of place. So much that at some point, she pulls out a whole new character just to demonstrate it, despite the myriad of characters that already existed. 

The timeline is challenging to follow but you already know my thing with timelines. The characters jump out at you from unexpected places and the book never ends, and despite trying to tie everything together, the storyline felt fractured.  And yet, it drags on and on and on and on. Even with that length, numerous storylines are not fully formed. She refused to wrap any of them up. The more she explains things, the more questions unravel. I had questions about Lin? How did he just get his life together like that and so suddenly? Often times, stories were told out of convenience. One minute there is a devastating revelation, and the next, we have jumped into something else; so that heavy themes are not dissected and communication is avoided all around. Speaking of themes, talk about throwing everything into a story. A New York Times Review says Wilkerson approaches this novel like a mad chef, "grabbing ingredients from all over the world, slicing and dicing with abandon, tossing characters and palm fronds and a few drops of rum into a pot and letting it all come to a simmer. She isn’t measuring, she’s eyeballing, as confident cooks do, and she’s not going to hold your hand as you learn your way around her kitchen." 

Every character lacked authenticity. Every Single Character, except Eleanor Bennet, lacked genuineness and perhaps the book could have focused on just Eleanor and be much more successful.

Art is subjective. I know that. But I'm puzzled at the buzz of this book. I won't ask you not to read this book–after all, it IS the book of the month. And it is a brilliant story, notwithstanding the aforementioned issue. Over all, this IS an ambitious book that gets you thinking.

If you do read it, let me know what you think. 



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