cover image Black Cake

Black Cake

Charmaine Wilkerson. Ballantine, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-593-35833-7

Wilkerson debuts with a shining family saga that stretches from the 1960s Caribbean to present-day Southern California. After septuagenarian Eleanor Bennett dies, her lawyer plays a lengthy message she has recorded for her children Byron and Benny. The siblings have made for uneasy company with each other since a rift grew between them—Byron, the oldest, is laser-focused on his career, while his sister Benny is drifting. They knew their mother as a stern presence and an accomplished swimmer from somewhere in the Caribbean (who was also known to bake a rum and port soaked “black cake” from an old family recipe), but neither is prepared for what they learn from the recording. Eleanor is in fact Coventina “Covey” Lyncook, who was married off to a gangster named Little Man in 1965 by her debt-ridden father. At the wedding, Little Man drops dead, poisoned. Covey runs from the scene and, knowing she will be suspected of murder, swims away from the island. At first shocked by the revelations, Byron and Benny reconcile, and their mother’s instructions to share a black cake she’d left in the freezer “when the time is right” take on great poignancy. Wilkerson offers superb descriptions of Covey’s homeland, from the tension between those who speak patois and those who believe in the superiority of standard English, to sensual descriptions of food, surfing, and coastal terrain. Readers will adore this highly accomplished effort from a talented new writer. Agent: Madeleine Milburn, Madeleine Milburn Literary. (Feb.)