If I had to define the central theme of the book Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson, it would probably be summed up by this quote:

But the fact was, when you lived a life, under any name, that life became entwined with others. You left a trail of potential consequences. You were never just you, and you owed it to the people you cared about to remember that.”


The cake in the title, made with blended fruits soaked in liquor and with burnt sugar added to produce its distinctive black color, is a symbol of family, tradition, a thread of familiarity that stretches back to connect all the disparate parts down through generations. It’s also a metaphor for the complexities of culture, in which such issues as colonization, slavery, immigration, assimilation, and social, racial, and political borders figure into every aspect of life—or a recipe.

This book is a kind of revelatory fiction; the story is told completely in third person, but from multiple voices and points of view, and a new bit of the story is revealed as another person takes up the narrative and adds his or her perspective. Situations are fleshed out by hearing about them from different voices and seeing them through different eyes, and each narrator has a reaction to share. Although Eleanor Bennett, the matriarch of this family, is the pivotal character, the story is moved forward by noting the effects all the secrets of her life have had on the members of her family, most specifically her children, and also by revealing the major impact that both significant and tertiary characters in her past have had on hers and everyone else’s future.

Although I had some difficulties with the book, the most persistent probably being that Wilkerson stuffed it as full of social issues as her black cake bulges with fruit, I appreciated it as a whole. I couldn’t wait, when I reached the end of a chapter, to turn the page and see what the next one would contain, and I was seldom disappointed. Murder, desperate acts, rebirths, aliases, grand secrets, it’s all there in Black Cake. The story is about decisions made that can never be taken back, about necessary sacrifice and stubborn persistence. It’s a powerful picture of what it means to be a survivor, and to preserve a sense of racial and cultural identity throughout. The thing I liked most about it was that the narrative evolved as a true storyteller would reveal it, carrying you along with her into an evocative past. Give it a taste and see if it’s to your liking.

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