Friday, March 3, 2023

Black Cake

Black Cake
  Black Cake
Author:  Charmaine Wilkerson
Publication Information:  Ballantine Books. 2022. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0593358333 / 978-0593358337

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "He should have known it would come to this."

Favorite Quote:  "Are you going to let someone else's view of who you should be, and what you should do, hold you back?"

The origin of black cake lies in British plum pudding, but the heart of black cake lies in the Caribbean. The tradition is to bake the cake just before Christmas and eat a little bit at a time until all of it is gone. Baking the cake is a days long process because the cake takes its flavor from fruits soaked in rum and/or brandy for days before the bake. Like many traditions, the cake takes on unique renditions in each family and becomes part of the family heritage passed down generation from generation.

"There it is, where it has always been, a piece of folded, lined notepaper where her mother had scribbled down the recipe for her black cake .... Rum, sugar, vanilla. And the occasional verb. Cream, rub, mix... the recipe has no number no quantities at all. Wait, was it always this way? ... her mother's recipe was never so much a list of firm quantities and instructions as a series of hints for how to proceed... What Benny learned from her mother had been handed down through demonstration, conversation, and proximity."

For Benny and Byron Bennett, a black cake is a last gift from their mother Eleanor. A cake and a recording of Eleanor telling her story is their heritage. Eleanor's history becomes the story within the story of this book. And a complicated story it is! Benny and Byron are estranged, but their mother's death brings them together. Each brings their own history, emotions, and baggage of their childhood. For each, it forms who they are as individuals. Through their mother's story comes the story of their own self-discovery and a path forward.

Through Eleanor's story, they realize how little they know - or knew - of their childhood and the woman who was their mother. Eleanor's story is that of a swimmer, of the islands, of a marriage bargain made for family finances, of friendship, of a death, of an escape, of reinvention, of leaving behind all that you are, of immigration, and of legacies like the black cake that you take with you.

This book covers a lot of ground. Through all the characters and their individual stories, the book delves into societal and political issues. Sometimes the story starts to scatter into the issues. Sometimes, the plot moves conveniently like family members uniting quickly and seamlessly after years of estrangement. Yet, the thread always winds back to Eleanor's story, which is emotional and compelling. 

Charmaine Wilkerson is a journalist turned novelist. Given that this is Charmaine Wilkerson's debut novel, I very much look forward to what she writes next.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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