Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson: A review
Before she died, Eleanor did two things: She recorded an eight-hour-long audio tape for her children to explain herself and tell them the story of her life and she made a black cake, a family recipe for a fruit cake, and froze it. The tape tells a complicated story that they had not been privy to previously. They must listen to it in the presence of Eleanor's lawyer. Their mother left instructions for them to eat the black cake together at a time that they will both recognize is right.
We learn that Byron has a successful career, but his sister has been unable to settle on a direction for her life. She dropped out of college years ago and has wandered rather aimlessly through life since then. We also learn that their mother was originally from an unnamed island in the Caribbean. There, she was a young girl named Covey. She and her father had been abandoned by her mother. After her mother left, she never contacted them again.
Covey's father was a gambler who also drank to excess, thus making her life less than secure. Her greatest joy was swimming in the ocean with her best friend Bunny and her boyfriend Gibbs. She and Gibbs made big plans for the future. They would go to London after they graduated high school and attend college there. They do get to London and eventually to the United States, to California, and it is there that they spend the rest of their lives.
Interspersed with Covey/Eleanor telling the story of her life on the audio tape, we also get snippets of the story of Benny and Byron. While I found Eleanor's story to be sympathetic and her character to be likable, I can't really say the same for Byron and Bunny. They had once been close as children but after Benny's big reveal, Byron evidently abandoned the relationship and they had no further contact until after their mother's death. Each of them was self-absorbed and unable, or unwilling, to really care much about other people, including each other.
The audio tape provides a number of surprises for Eleanor's children, but the biggest surprise is that they have a half-sister. As a young woman on her first job, Eleanor had been raped by her boss and had had a child as a result. Her daughter had been given up for adoption. That daughter is now a successful television personality in London.
This was the debut novel of Charmaine Wilkerson and one has the feeling that she attempted to cover all the major social issues in one plot. She attempts to address not only workplace rape but things like racial and gay discrimination, police brutality against Blacks, the pollution of the ocean, arranged marriage, forced adoption, parental abandonment, and on and on. It's too much! If she had stuck to just one or two of those, it would have been a much stronger and more coherent plot. The main characters are well-drawn, particularly Elizabeth and her husband, but the story told is disjointed with events sometimes occurring out of order. A tighter focus would have made for a much more enjoyable read.
On the plus side are the emphases on the importance of foods and traditions to island life and the references to the history of the island which could be a stand-in for most of the Caribbean islands. It is a rich and complicated history that provides the outlines for a potentially great tale. That isn't this book, but still, this one isn't bad.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars