Review: Black Cake

4 out of 5 stars (+.5 star bonus for the audiobook!)

Great story, but with one critical plot point I just could not buy. Black Cake, by Charmaine Wilkerson

Do yourself a favor and listen to Black Cake on audiobook. Narrators Lynnette R. Freeman and Simone Mcintyre do an incredible job with the musical, deeply emotional accents of the Caribbean characters. It adds a transporting layer of magic to the story.

Black Cake is many stories. A young Black girl named Covey comes of age on a Caribbean island in the 1950s. From there, concentric circles ripple outward, influencing fates that will span generations and the globe. A young woman navigates the world of 1960s England. An older woman comes to terms with her mortality. Modern middle-aged siblings return to each other as their lives change forever.

Benny and Byron, estranged sister and brother, meet for the dying wish of their departed mother Eleanor: to hear a recording she’s made. The story within is breathtaking – secrets and lies, births and deaths, identities and humanity. Starting with Covey, whose idyllic island life takes a turn she’s powerless to resist, Wilkerson’s characters emerge beautifully onto the page. Eleanor herself is complete and marvelous; if only we all could present ourselves one last time with such dignity. Told mostly in first-person flashbacks, Black Cake goes way back for the start of their two seemingly unrelated stories. They collide, become one, then continue to crash into and pick up other stories, like a snowball rolling down a hill. By the end it’s massive, and it’s impact leaves Benny and Byron stunned.

So why not 5 stars? First, Benny (a woman) is too conveniently weak. Faced with any adversity, Benny runs and hides – when she shouldn’t. And stays when she should run. There’s no sense to her. She’s faced some real traumas but by the time we learn of them, she’s had no backbone too other many times to expect much. Her redemption is lukewarm at best.

Now, for my bigger issue. [Accept all SPOILERS, ye who enter here.]

Covey is suspected of murdering Little Man. Never formally charged, only suspected. There’s no evidence. Decades pass. Another suspect comes up. More decades pass. Nothing happens. Covey now has a completely different identity and is 50 years older, but she still can’t go home? To a place where no one knows her anymore, where she is no longer even the same person she was then. For fear of this suspicion. It’s too thin. A decade, maybe two after Little Man’s death – I buy that. But half a century later, with a different name on a real passport from another country? Hell, Bunny married the local policewoman. She couldn’t have asked her wife to check into the status of the case? BAH. It doesn’t take much away from Covey’s story, but in the end it’s very sad that she never went back. And a shame the sadness didn’t have a better reason behind it.

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