Monday, March 21, 2022

Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson

Black Cake is a sprawling, brilliant debut novel by Charmaine Wilkerson. It is hard to believe it is a debut novel, since the writing is so rich and complex, but she has been writing for a long time. 

Benedetta Bennet (known as Benny), and Coventina (Covey) have been best friends for life, and their voices are two of the most important narrative voices in this novel, although there are a host of narrators representing generations of families. The chapters are split between then (1965) and now (2018). Benny and Byron, once super-close siblings have drifted apart as they matured, but the death of Eleanor Bennett, their mother, brings them together, and the narrative she has left behind for them shows them that Eleanor was not the person they or others thought she was. Benny and Byron, or B & B as their mother likes to call them, have been summoned to Eleanor Bennett’s attorney’s office and are given a handwritten note and a USB drive. The note says simply “B and B, there’s a small black cake in the freezer for you. Don’t throw it out.”

As Wilkerson tells us in her Author’s Note:

It was my personal familiarity with a particular Caribbean food, black cake, that led obliquely to this book. It started me thinking about the emotional  weight carried by recipes and other familial markers that are handed down from one generation to the next. Then it had me writing about characters who must hold fast to their sense of self when they learn their lives have been built on a dubious narrative.

What we call holiday fruit cake is as close as most of us come to black cake. But the Caribbean black cake is made with fruit that has been soaked in alcohol over long periods of times, and is especially treasured as a wedding cake.

Not everyone sits down to write a book but everyone is a storyteller, in one form or other. As I wrote this novel, a lifetime of anecdotes and fleeting impressions shared by the Caribbean members of my multicultural family helped me to develop some of the fictional characters and scenarios from the 1950s and 1960s. The scenes from the unnamed island in the Caribbean reflect some of the geography and history of Jamaica...The fictional town where members of the book’s older generation grew up is inspired by the northeast coast of that island and uses a mix of actual and invented locations.

Without telling you much of the story that unfolds as B and B listen to the story their mother tells them, one of the two best friends is given by her father as a bride to a much older and powerful money-lender. Benny, who is a great long-distance swimmer helps Covey to escape the island and the marriage, but must then escape and change her own identity because of the long reach of the money lender and his family.

While B and B slowly learn the real history of their mother, scores of other characters are introduced. Covey eventually becomes a kind of food anthropologist telling family stories via food traditions. Benny becomes s world famous open-water distance swimmer, and eventually marries and moves to the United States.

In many ways Wilkerson displays the dangers for Blacks living in white communities., and in this way the novel seems very current. A black man pulled over for a busted tail light, and while trying to get his wallet, the officer pulls a gun on him.

What was the kid supposed to do if he was asked to show his driver’s license?

How is a person supposed to reach for their wallet? Are black people in America not allowed to have hands?

Byron would like to believe that this epidemic of mistreatment, this bullying of unarmed black men is just that, an outbreak, though prolonged, that can be brought under control. He wants to keep believing in law enforcement officers, to respect the risky work that they do, knowing that every day they step into unknown territory. He wants to know that he can still pick up the phone and call the cops if he ever needs to. There’s a lot of anger out there. A lot of hurt. Where  are they all gonna end up—black white, whoever—if things don’t get better?

Good question, and Wilkerson is a master at spotlighting this and so many contemporary issues. This is a wonderful novel, one of the best I have read in the past two years, and a fitting tribute to Women’s History month. 

No comments:

Post a Comment