“Black Cake” by Charmaine Wilkerson (Ballantine Books)
The debut novel of former journalist and short fiction writer Charmaine Wilkerson opens with a one-paragraph prologue called “Then/1965.” A man stands at the water’s edge, “waiting for his daughter’s body to wash ashore.” The next page is titled “Now/2018″ and we meet Byron and Benny, estranged siblings seeing each other for the first time in eight years at their mother’s funeral.
The chapters come fast and furious after that. It takes some getting used to at first, but you eventually settle into a rhythm and enjoy puzzling together what happens between each short snippet. It’s 382 pages of flash fiction to fill in those 53 years between Then and Now.
It all adds up to quite a story. Every character has multiple narratives. There’s the face they present to their fellow characters in the novel, then there’s their true backstory, which often flips that public face on its head. Or as Benny wonders in her own head as she grapples with her parents’ history: “This is who they have always been, an African American family of Caribbean origin, a clan of untold stories and half-charted cultures.”
The novel truly puts the “omni” in its omniscient narrator, with plot driven mostly by internal dialogue and flashbacks. Like the flash fiction format, it’s sometimes confusing initially, but ultimately rewarding when the whole story coalesces by the end. There’s much more to recommend here, including weighty themes about race, identity and protecting the environment, as well as the power of family recipes to convey love without words, but the fun is in the reading. As Wilkerson writes near the end as Benny and Byron come to terms with their family narrative: They “sit there silently for a moment, thinking of small but profound inheritances. Of how untold stories shape people’s lives, both when they are withheld and when they are revealed.”
“Black Cake” is a satisfying literary meal, heralding the arrival of a new novelist to watch.