Black Cake is a story of how betrayals, secrets, memories, and even names can shape a family’s history and relationships. Written by Charmaine Wilkerson in a beautiful and evocative manner, the novel tells the tale of a family whose matriarch altered their lives forever.
The theme of Black Cake is intriguing and quiet. There is also a bit of a mystery that will keep you guessing. I am still pondering the different themes in this tale.
Summary Read Time: Less than 8 minutes
Actual Book Length: 385
First Published in: 2022
Below is the detailed yet quick summary of the book:
In Part I, Byron and Benny Bennett are two estranged adult siblings who reunite at their mother’s law office to read her mother’s will after she dies of illness. Benny has been estranged from the family for 6 years after telling them that he is bisexual at Thanksgiving. Her father, Burt Bennett, died a few years later before Benny reconciled with them. Benny attended her funeral, but he said nothing to Byron or her mother.
During the day, the siblings find out that their mother has left them a black cake (a traditional desert from the Caribbean Islands) and a recording before her death. They also learn that they have a half-sister. As they listen to the recording, Eleanor begins to tell the story of Covey, a young woman growing up on the Caribbean Islands in the 1950s. Along with her pal Bunny, Covey was an avid swimmer. He was the son of a Chinese immigrant who ran two small stores on the island . Mathilda, Covey’s mum, ran a bakery with the help of Pearl, her grandmother’s helper. Because Lin was a gambler, a habit that damaged the family’s finances and drove Mathilda away.
Covey meets Gibbs Grant, a surfer, soon after her sixteenth birthday. They fall in love and plan to flee from the islands together someday. At about the same time, there is a fire at one of Lin’s shops. Lin takes out a loan from a shady money lender named “Little Man” Henry, who is said to have once murdered a woman who rejected him. Little Man becomes enamored with Covey, and Lin is forced to arrange for Covey to wed him to pay off his debts. Covey is not happy about the arrangement. When Gibbs is leaving the islands to go to school in London, she refuses to accompany him. Instead, she states that she will find another solution.
When the wedding day arrives, Pearl lets her know by putting poison in the top layer of the cake (which the couple takes home) and decorating it with purple flowers (which Coby hates). However, during the toast, Little Man suffocates to death and Coby disappears. Coby then secretly finds Pearl, who gives her the money left by her mother and the contact information of a woman who knows Matilda who helps Coby get off the island.
In the fall of 1965, Covey lived in London with Coventina under her name Brown and worked as her nanny, although she later became Eleanor Bennett. On her islands, Coby is believed to have murdered her husband and fled. In the recording, Eleanor’s mother affirms that she is Covey and that the stories she told about growing up in an orphanage were stories she borrowed from someone else.
Alternating with Eleanor’s account of her past, Benny reflects on her life’s journey in the present. In her family, she and Byron were expected to achieve great success in order to gain her influence and professional opportunities. However, after Benny was beaten by two (gay) women for being a “traitor” for flirting with men, she dropped out of the elite college. Benny then enrolled in art school and met her ex, Joanie. Joanie later separated from her and moved to New York, and Benny followed Joanie to New York in hopes of reconciliation.Over the past few years, Benny has developed an ongoing relationship with a man named Steve. Benny hopes to one day open an art cafe (a cafe that sells art), but all his applications for loans from banks have been turned down.
We also learned that Byron has an ex, Lynette, who recently broke up with him. Although Byron has achieved success, he is more of a speaker and media figure than an actual scientist, and does not feel entirely satisfied with his work. He applied for a director-level position at his company (which would allow him to do more practical work), but was turned down twice.
In Part 2, Eleanor continues recording with the story of Eleanor “Ellie” Douglas. Ellie grew up in an orphanage and met Covey in London when she was working as a nurse. Ellie convinces Covey to leave London with her so she can pursue other dreams (Ellie wants to be a geologist), but they get on a train that crashes and Ellie is killed. When someone thinks Coby is a dead person, Coby doesn’t correct her. I know this is an opportunity to put her past as a murder suspect behind her. Instead, Coby assumes Ellie’s identity and takes over as Eleanor Douglas.
Meanwhile, on the Isles, they hear of Coby’s death. Not only was Bunny her best friend, but she had a bit of a crush on Coby, so she’s saddened to hear of her death. Even after Coby left, the bunny continued to swim. Bunny dated a man named Jimmy and she left him to be with a woman named Patsy, but she soon found out she was pregnant with Jimmy’s child. Bunny eventually moved to England, where she continued her long-distance swimmer career with Patsy, and the two raised Bunny’s son and Patsy’s younger brother.
As “Eleanor Douglas” Coby moves to Scotland and takes an office job. Things are going well for her until one day she is raped by her boss. Eleanor immediately quits that girlfriend’s job, but she discovers that she is pregnant. She takes refuge in an animal shelter run by nuns, but she is eventually forced to adopt a baby named Mathilde (named after the woman who helped her get off the island). A few months later, Eleanor discovers Gibbs Grant. She called him even though she knew she needed to cut ties with her past. Gibbs decides to give up his past and changes his name to Burt Bennett so they can be together. (So Gibbs and Coby became Bert and Eleanor Bennett.)
In Part 3, in the present tense, Byron reflects on how uncaring and resentful her mother was in her later years. A flashback reveals that Eleanor was upset by her eldest daughter’s absence. Meanwhile, Benny wants to get in touch with her in her final years, wondering what happened to her at college. I wrote a letter to her mother explaining what happened and apologized for not patching it sooner. Benny had just sent a letter recently. She thought she had sent the letter too late (her mother had died by then), but when they heard the recording, Eleanor revealed that she had received the letter and sent it through her. She expressed regret at not being able to support Benny during her difficulties.
Further flashbacks reveal that even after their estrangement, Benny’s father Bert kept an eye on her. Unfortunately Bart died suddenly and was never able to reconcile with her daughter.
Another flashback describes how she went to her Pringle lecture in February 2018 (about a year before Eleanor’s death) to Etta, a renowned long-distance swimmer. Etta turns out to be Eleanor/Coby’s childhood friend Bunny. During the conversation, Eleanor modestly told Etta that she called herself “Eleanor Bennett” and lived in Anaheim.
Part 4 introduces the character of Mabel “Marble” Martin. She is an “ethno food guru” who recently published a book on traditional food and says, “Like the people’s diaspora, the food diaspora has helped shape many cultural traditions”. Today, she appears on a TV show and talks about black cake and its origins.
In a flashback we see that Marble was adopted by her (white) parents, Wanda and Ronald Martin. She doubts it. In the present, Marble receives an email from Eleanor’s mansion asking to meet her. In another flashback, before Eleanor died, she recognized a Marble that looked like her from a TV advert and thought about reaching out, but didn’t want to reach out just to tell her daughter that she’s dying.
Meanwhile, back in California, Benny ponders why she didn’t speak to Byron and her mother at her father’s funeral. They think she didn’t show up, but she did. But Steve physically insulted her at times and beat her up the day before the funeral. Benny wanted to talk to them, but didn’t because she didn’t want to see her injured. In modern times, Mr. Mitch Benny, a lawyer, also gave Benny some of her father’s files. Benny looked at the receipts, and her father kept an eye on her. It indicates that he made several trips to New York. In the present day, Byron is also reunited with his ex, Lynette (he attends a nephew’s meeting after her nephew was exposed in a case of police brutality). He finds out she’s pregnant with his child and she wants to know how enthusiastic he is. Byron thinks about it, he realizes he is not good at showing that he cares but he wants to do better.
Some time later, Marble heads to California to see Benny and Byron. Things are going well until Marble finds out about his father (who attacked Eleanor) and leaves without saying goodbye. However, she ends up listening to Eleanor’s recordings with her parents and she eventually returns to California. When the three brothers are reunited, they finally share a piece of the frozen black cake Eleanor left behind.
Inside the cake is a photo of Coby, Gibbs and Bunny together. You can also find some Ellie’s jewellery. Her trinkets turned out to be valuable old coins (flashbacks show that they were stolen from their masters by slaves and buried, leaving slaves behind when she escaped Ellie then dug them up 200 years later.
Together, the brothers decide it’s time to return to the island and find out what happened to her mother’s alleged murder. Before returning, Eta finds her Pringle/Bunny. She recognizes who they are because Marble looks like a light-skinned version of Coby and the other two brothers look like Gibbs. All four then travel to the island to visit Pearl.
They also go to see Lynn, Eleanor/Coby’s father, but the meeting is brief as Byron is angry with Lynn for treating Coby. Lynn is now wealthy having quit gambling permanently, making some money on the black market and making some good investments in the stock market. Lin suffered a stroke as a result of the meeting, but he survived.
After all these events, Byron was urged to take charge of his life and become the real husband and father of Lynette and their children. He sued his believing employer and used the settlement to start his own consulting business. Meanwhile, Benny has recently received more art commissions and her illustration of Etta has gone viral. Benny also stops answering Steve’s phone calls and flirts with another man.
In the final section of the book, we learn that Coby came to a distraught Bunny’s house after Bunny found out about his forced marriage to Little Man. The book tells how on the day of the wedding, Bunny stole the poison bottle pearl used in the cake and used it to poison Little Man’s champagne, killing him during a toast. It ends with the brothers scattering Coby and Gibbs’ mixed ashes into the ocean, along with the leftover black cake left by their mother.