Black Cake

Charmaine Wilkerson | United States

On a Caribbean island in the 1960’s an 18-year-old girl is being forced to marry the local con-man, who’s more than twice her age, in order to settle her father’s debts. Decades later this same woman, now in her seventies, is dying and she is using the only object she knows—a black cake—to try to reunite her children after her death.

Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel unfolds a generational family saga that begins on a not-named Caribbean island, to London, Scotland, and California where the protagonist Covey Lynwood has been carrying many terrible secrets. She’s able to bury some throughout the years, but eventually they catch up with her and she is forced to confront all of them to the people who are completely unaware: her children.  

This book ebbs and flows through small village life in the Caribbean where Covey’s interracial parents (her father is a Chinese immigrant and her mother is black) deal with the racial tensions happening on the island. The story moves to Europe during the Windrush period, outlining some of the discriminations and prejudices Caribbean people faced. But mostly this book is about the hard choices Covey and her husband are forced to make about their identity in order to secure their safety and that of their children.

Covey’s future family will suffer for her deception and Wilkerson explores the hurt of each family member within the bubble of family loyalty, but also the consequences of these secrets that bred a lack of empathy for each other. Many realizations happen way too late, but there are some redemptions that are satisfying, though very bittersweet.

Although an interesting narrative, I found Black Cake to be vague in too many areas: why wasn’t the “island” named in the book? Too many times for my liking, Wilkerson generalizes the place Covey grew up as “the island” and I couldn’t decide if the author was trying to extend the air of secrecy that shrouds the book overall, or if she just unintentionally made all of the Caribbean synonymous with this word usage. Other than the black cake reference, there’s very little else that gives the reader a true sense of what it means to live in the Caribbean because the nuanced characteristics that distinguishes each island, are overlooked. I also found some chapters too short and so insignificant I wondered why they were included at all. I was most disappointed with the chapter on Mathilda, Covey’s mother, because so many questions are asked about her through various characters, but only a page is given to what happened to her.

Ultimately, Black Cake is an average read; the hardships experienced by Covey and the decisions she was forced to make time and again, her children’s troubles in dealing with life, and the many people who Covey had to abandon, makes it interesting. Sadly, I didn’t feel particularly connected to any of these characters.

“The false narrative that Eleanor had woven for the benefit of her loved ones had become a net that had trapped her.'”

-Charmaine Wilkerson

First Published: 2022
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