Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Bennie and Byron are both devastated over the loss of their mother. Still, they cannot imagine why they are here, sitting with Mr. Mitch, their mother’s lawyer, just a day before her funeral. What could he possibly have to tell them that they do not already know – she’s their mother, after all. And just because Bennie has felt she’s had to separate herself from her home and family for the past several years after a hurtful Thanksgiving feud, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t know her own mother. Or does it? As Benny and Byron listen to the recording their mother prepared for them just prior to her death, they learn about her real past and how this will impact their lives in the future.

I should have loved this novel. It was told from a 360 degree narrative that I love – the perspective of different voices, involving different time periods. It is enriched with sensory descriptions and with beautiful cultural imagery, particularly when describing Eleanor’s (their mom’s) Caribbean roots. There are messages of environmental and political importance that were worthy of being elevated.

But what was missing, at least for me, was a deep connection to the characters. Maybe it’s that we are told about a palpable anger and resentment between the siblings that permeates the tone of the story, but I feel we don’t really get to know those siblings all that well. We get quick peeks into their lives, brief snippets of their struggles.  Byron in his constant state of sullenness is the overachieving Black male, having to outrun his peers just to get ahead. Bennie is the opposite: trying to find herself because she doesn’t fit neatly into any box. But not only is the storytelling somewhat dispassionate, but it is also choppy. We don’t really get to feel their feelings, we don’t see their more tender sides. Little wonder we (or I at least) can’t connect.

What I find here is a great idea with such rich potential, but I do not believe it was as well-executed as it deserved. The story deserved characters served up with deep love, empathy and much more heart. I just didn’t feel that here.