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Black cake : a novel
OverDrive Inc.  Ebook
2022
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"In this moving debut novel, two estranged siblings must set aside their differences to deal with their mother's death and her hidden past--a journey of discovery that takes them from the Caribbean to London to California and ends with her famous black cake. In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett's death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a traditional Caribbean black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking journey Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child, challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their family, and themselves. Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor's true history, and fulfill her final request to 'share the black cake when the time is right?' Will their mother's revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever? Charmaine Wilkerson's debut novel is a story of how the inheritance of betrayals, secrets, memories, and even names, can shape relationships and history. Deeply evocative and beautifully written, Black Cake is an extraordinary journey through the life of a family changed forever by the choices of its matriarch"-- - (Baker & Taylor)

Two estranged siblings try to reclaim the closeness they once shared while trying to piece together their late mother’s life story and fulfill her last request of sharing a traditional Caribbean black cake “when the time is right.” - (Baker & Taylor)

NOW A HULU STREAMING SERIES • NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • READ WITH JENNA BOOK CLUB PICK AS FEATURED ON TODAY • Two estranged siblings delve into their mother’s hidden past—and how it all connects to her traditional Caribbean black cake—in this immersive family saga, “a character-driven, multigenerational story that’s meant to be savored” (Time).
 
“Wilkerson transports you across the decades and around the globe accompanied by complex, wonderfully drawn characters.”—Taylor Jenkins Reid, New York Times bestselling author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, Daisy Jones & The Six, and Malibu Rising

ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR: Oprah Daily, NPR, BuzzFeed, Glamour, PopSugar, Book Riot, She Reads


We can’t choose what we inherit. But can we choose who we become?

In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett’s death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage and themselves.

Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor’s true history, and fulfill her final request to “share the black cake when the time is right”? Will their mother’s revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever?

Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel is a story of how the inheritance of betrayals, secrets, memories, and even names can shape relationships and history. Deeply evocative and beautifully written, Black Cake is an extraordinary journey through the life of a family changed forever by the choices of its matriarch. - (Random House, Inc.)

Author Biography

Charmaine Wilkerson is an American writer who has lived in Jamaica and is based in Italy. A graduate of Barnard College and Stanford University, she is a former journalist whose award-winning short fiction has appeared in various magazines and anthologies. Black Cake is her first novel. - (Random House, Inc.)

First Chapter or Excerpt
Now

2018

She’s here.

Byron hears the elevator doors peel open. His first instinct is to rush toward his sister and embrace her. But when Benny leans in to hug him, Byron pushes her away, then turns to knock on the door to the attorney’s office. He feels Benny put a hand on his arm. He shakes it free. Benny stands there, her mouth open, but says nothing. And what right does she have to say anything? Byron hasn’t seen Benny in eight years. And, now, their ma is gone for good.

What does Benny expect? She took a family argument and turned it into a cold war. Never mind all that talk about societal rejection and discrimination and whatnot. It seems to Byron that whatever kind of problem you have in this world, you can find someone to show you understanding. And times are changing. There’s even been a study in the news recently about people like Benny.

People like Benny.

The study says it can be a lonely road for people like her. But she won’t be getting any sympathy from Byron, no. Benedetta Bennett gave up that luxury years ago when she turned her back on her family, even though she claims it was the other way around. At least she showed up this time. Six years ago, Byron and his mother sat in the church across from his father’s coffin up in L.A. County, waiting for Benny to arrive, but no Benny. Later, Byron thought he saw his sister skirting the burial grounds in the back of a car. She’d be there any minute, he thought. But, still, no Benny. Only a text from her later, saying I’m sorry. Then silence. For months at a time. Then years.

As each year went by, he was less certain that Benny had been there that day or that he’d ever had a sister to begin with.

That he’d ever had a chubby, squiggle-headed baby girl following him around the house.

That she’d ever cheered him on at the national meets.

That he’d ever heard her voice sailing across the auditorium as he closed his hand around his doctoral diploma.

That he’d ever not felt the way he does right now. Orphaned and pissed as hell.


Benny

Her mother’s attorney opens the door and Benny looks past him, half expecting to see her ma sitting in the room. But it’s only Benny and Byron now, and Byron won’t even look at her.

The lawyer is saying something about a message from their mother but Benny can’t concentrate, she’s still looking at Byron, at the bits of gray in his hair that didn’t use to be there. What’s with the pushing, anyway? The man is forty-five years old, not ten. In all these years, her big brother has never shoved her, never hit her, not even when she was little and tended to pounce and bite like a puppy.

Benny’s first memory of Byron: They are sitting on the couch, she is settled under her brother’s arm, and Byron is reciting adventure stories to her from a book. His feet can already touch the floor. Byron stops to fluff Benny’s hair with his fingers, to pull on her earlobes, to pinch her nostrils shut, to tickle her until she is breathless with laughter, until she is dying of happiness.


The Message

Their mother has left them a message, the lawyer says. The lawyer’s name is Mr. Mitch. He’s talking to Byron and Benny as though he’s known them all their lives, though Byron can only recall meeting him one other time, when his ma needed help getting around town after her accident last winter, the one his friend Cable insisted wasn’t an accident. Byron walked his mother up to Mr. Mitch’s office, then went back outside to wait for her in the car. He was sitting there watching some kids skateboard down the broad, buff-toned sidewalks between one high-end chain store and the next, when a police officer rapped on his side window. 

This kind of thing had happened to Byron so often over the course of his adult life that sometimes he forgot to be nervous. But most times, whenever he was approached or pulled over by an officer, he slid down into that space between one heartbeat and the next where he could hear his blood crashing through his body, a waterfall carrying centuries of history with it, threatening to wipe out the ground on which he stood. His research, his books and social media following, the speaking engagements, the scholarship he wanted to fund, all of it, could be gone in a split second of misunderstanding.

Only later, after the officer had opened the trunk of his patrol car and come back with a copy of Byron’s latest book (Could he have an autograph?), did it occur to Byron that a grown man of any color, sitting alone in a car watching pre-adolescents skateboard up and down the sidewalk, could elicit a reasonable degree of suspicion. All right, he could see that, it wasn’t always about him being a black man. Though, mostly, it was.

“Let me just warn you,” Mr. Mitch is saying now. “About your mother. You need to be prepared.”

Prepared?

Prepared for what? Their mother is already gone.

His ma.

He doesn’t see how anything after that is going to make much of a difference.


B and B

There’s an entire file box labeled Estate of Eleanor Bennett. Mr. Mitch pulls out a brown paper envelope with their mother’s handwriting on it and puts it on the desk in front of Byron. Benny shifts her seat closer to Byron’s and leans in to look. Byron removes his hand but leaves the packet where Benny can see it. Their ma has addressed the envelope to B and B, the moniker she liked to use whenever she wrote or spoke to them together.

B-and-B notes were usually pinned to the fridge door with a magnet. B and B, there’s some rice and peas on the stove. B and B, I hope you left your sandy shoes at the door. B and B, I love my new earrings, thank you!

Ma only called them Byron or Benny when she was speaking with one sibling or the other, and she only called Benny Benedetta when she was upset.

Benedetta, what about this report card? Benedetta, don’t talk to your father that way. Benedetta, I need to talk to you.


Benedetta, please come home.


Their mother left a letter, Mr. Mitch says, but most of their mother’s last message is contained in an audio file that took her more than eight hours, over four days, to record.

“Go ahead,” Mr. Mitch says, nodding at the packet.

Byron cuts open the envelope and shakes out its contents, a USB drive and a handwritten note. He reads the note out loud. It’s so typically Ma.

B and B, there’s a small black cake in the freezer for you. Don’t throw it out.


Black cake. Byron catches himself smiling. Ma and Dad used to share a slice of cake every year to mark their anniversary. It wasn’t the original wedding cake, they said, not anymore. Ma would make a new one every five years or so, one layer only, and put it in the freezer. Still, she insisted that any black cake, steeped as it was in rum and port, could have lasted the full length of their marriage.

I want you to sit down together and share the cake when the time is right. You’ll know when.


Benny covers her mouth with one hand.

Love, Ma.


Benny starts to cry.

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Trade Reviews

Booklist Reviews

*Starred Review* In her beautifully poignant debut novel, Wilkerson explores how secrets kept and stories left untold can matter even more than the things we do say. Eleanor Bennet's final bequest, an audio recording and a homemade Caribbean black cake stowed in the freezer, puzzles her grieving children, Benny and Byron. The story that emerges upends everything the estranged brother and sister thought they knew about their family and themselves. In 1965, a young woman fleeing an arranged marriage and suspicion of murder disappears into the surf. Cutting all ties, she crosses oceans, reinvents herself, and makes heartbreaking choices to take control of her life and, she hopes, reunite with her first love. Wilkerson uses one Caribbean American family's extraordinary tale to probe universal issues of identity and how the lives we live and the choices we make leave a trail of potential consequences that pass down through generations. She is a masterful storyteller. Black Cake's complex plot unfolds in vignettes that alternate among different times, places, and viewpoints, evoking her children's bewilderment as they absorb Eleanor's account. Memorable, fully developed characters ground a story that spans decades and continents. Vivid symbolism and imagery enhance the narrative's fable-like tone, as when Byron imagines her mother's black cake recipe as an incantation calling up a line from her true past.HIGH DEMAND BACKSTORY: Advance raves and the news that a Hulu series is in development with Oprah Winfrey will stoke interest in Wilkerson's assured first novel. Copyright 2022 Booklist Reviews.

Library Journal Reviews

Estranged siblings Byron and Benny come together over their mother's death and their confusion regarding her final legacy: she's left them a traditional Caribbean black cake, made from a venerable family recipe, along with a voice recording sharing her story as a young swimmer who left her island home with suspicions of murder hanging over her head. But she doesn't tell her whole story, and Byron and Benny have more secrets to discover before they are done. Bought in a sizzling auction, this is a buzzing work from debuter Wilkerson.

Copyright 2021 Library Journal.

Library Journal Reviews

DEBUT Wilkerson's debut brings together two estranged siblings after the death of their mother, Eleanor. Byron, a successful biologist, has stuck by his family through his father's and now his mother's deaths. After 10 years apart, he sees his sister Benny at the reading of their mother's will. The siblings, who used to be inseparable, are instructed to listen to a recording their mother left, then share the black cake (her old family recipe for special occasions) "when the time is right." The recording reveals a hidden past filled with tragedy and heartache neither child could have imagined. The siblings learn about Covey, who lives in the Caribbean, is abandoned by her mother at an early age, and falls for a boy named Gibbs. When Covey is accused of murder, she leaves home with only a wooden box and her mother's black cake recipe. The story moves to Britain, where Covey experiences more tragedy. Byron and Benny learn the sacrifices, hardships, and sorrow their mother endured, while finding out more about themselves and their identities. VERDICT Already picked up by Oprah's Harpo Films, Wilkerson's novel jumps between Covey's life and Byron's and Benny's in the current day. This engrossing read is highly recommended.—Brooke Bolton

Copyright 2022 Library Journal.

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