I’d been looking forward to reading this novel about family ties and ruptures since I downloaded it in September; I do tend to like to read books around their publication date. And I can say this did not disappoint. I’m doing well with my NetGalley reading this month – well I wasn’t able to download “Girl Transcending” before it vanished and I didn’t get on with “Influenced Love” but I’ve read and reviewed three of the others with this one and am currently reading Monica Ali’s “Love Marriage”.

Charmaine Wilkerson – “Black Cake”

(22 Sept 2021 – NetGalley)

If you were born to Bert and Eleanor, you banked on your university degrees, you built your influence, you accumulated wealth, you quashed all vulnerability. In short, you became Byron Bennett.

Brother and sister Byron and Benny haven’t seen each other since Benny walked out after a family row about what their parents saw as her lifestyle choices and she saw as her own ways of loving and arranging her life. And just why are they expected to be so perfect? Byron’s angry with Benny as he’s over-achieved and pushed through his career, but at the expense perhaps of the freedom and love he sees Benny grasping. Now they’re in a lawyer’s office, being forced to pay attention to their late mum’s words and work out when (and whether!) to share the last black cake she made for them.

For their mum, the recipe for black cake was the only thing she took with her from her original life. We follow the story of several characters from a 1960s Caribbean island, loosely based on Jamaica, to the UK and the US, and at first we’re as confused as Benny and Byron as we all learn about people they’ve never heard of before. Who are these people and how are they connected with their parents? Did their parents have lives before them? Gradually events unfold and unfurl, hopping backwards and forwards through the timeline, but in a self-assured manner that works out fine, and touching on gender violence, mores in various countries, colourism, micro-aggressions, climate change and pollution, and privilege – but never in a heavy or preachy way.

The book is careful about colonialism, pointing out that black cake is an offshoot of plum pudding brought to the islands by the British and also discussing the way foods have travelled and mixed over the centuries through one particular character. It’s not po-faced though and there are laughs and smiles, for example when Byron and his mum experience an earthquake and one thing MUST be saved: the fruit steeped in alcohol waiting to go into a black cake.

But this was going too far. Now his mother was expecting her only son to risk his life by going back into their kitchen to pull a two-liter glass jar, sixty-eight ounces of ebony-colored slosh, out from behind the dried beans and rice and sugar and peppercorns, while a seismic event was in process, no less. Surely no good could come of this.

The author addresses us in an Afterword, recommending books to read to get a more realistic focus on life in the Caribbean in the 60s or in the UK for people who came here (including “Small Island” and “The Lonely Londoners“) – this is a good resource and she encourages people to read widely. She says here that she treated the story more like a folk story or fairy tale, though I felt it had a lot of emotional realism, too. A great story which is complex but understandable and some memorable characters and scenes – I can’t believe it’s a debut as it’s so well-done and self-assured, and it’s highly recommended.

Thank you to Penguin Michael Joseph for selecting me to read this book in return for an honest review. “Black Cake” was published on 3 February 2022.