This family story (400 pages) was published in February of 2022 by Ballantine. The book takes you to 1960s Jamaica and 2018 California. Melissa read Black Cake and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if she didn't recommend it.
This family story about identity and forgiveness is set in modern-day California and the Caribbean in the 1960s. The main characters are an estranged brother and sister, their recently deceased mother, and Jamaican black cake. Do not deny yourself this beautiful novel in which cake plays a central role.
When the novel opens, Byron and his sister Benny are meeting with an attorney to settle their mom’s estate. This is the first time in years that they’ve been in the same room. ‘Taut’ is the word that comes to mind. Then they learn that instead of paperwork, their mother has left them an audiotape she spent days recording. Her final wish was that Byron and Benny listen to it together. Now.
They’re also given a note that says, ‘B and B, there’s a small black cake in the freezer for you. I want you to sit down and share the cake when the time is right. You’ll know when.’
So they begrudgingly listen to the tape while wrestling with their complicated feelings. It’s not long before they learn almost everything they knew about their parents and family history is a lie.
The story unfolds in vignettes labeled Then and Now, with shifting points of view among Byron, Benny, and their mom. We learn who Byron and Benny are in 2018, in Southern California, and the convoluted path their parents took from Jamaica to London to the US — and what prompted each step on that path.
Throughout the story, there are multiple instances of black cake bringing mothers and children together, connecting them to each other and to Jamaica. Just as families have complicated histories, so, too, does black cake. Usually baked for holidays like Easter, Christmas, and weddings, black cake is dark, dense, and complex. It starts with dried fruit marinated in rum, then the batter is made fragrant with Caribbean spices — allspice, nutmeg, cinnamon, vanilla — and scorched brown sugar called browning sauce. To some characters in the book, it’s the sense of home made edible; to others, it’s a remnant of ‘colonizers from a cold country.’
This is a sweeping story that weaves threads of racism and climate change with good old, messed-up family dynamics. It draws a vivid picture of what it might have been like to be a teenager in Jamaica in the 1960s — and what kind of adult that would make in the present. There are also acts of coincidence or fate that bring people together at just the right time — and there is, under every wrong decision and sharp word, love.
His mother used to say she would make a black cake for Byron and Benny when each of them got married, but neither of them had. Ma’s cake was a work of art, Byron had to admit. That moist, loamy mouthful, the tang of spirits behind the nose. But Byron had never shared his parents’ emotional attachment to the recipe. Tradition, his ma used to say. But whose tradition, exactly? Black cake was essentially a plum pudding handed down to the Caribbeans by colonizers from a cold country. Why claim the recipes of the exploiters as your own? Tradition? How about coconut gizzada? How about mango ice cream? How about jerk pork, rice and peas, Scotch bonnet peppers, coconut milk, yellow plantains, and all those flavors that Byron had come to enjoy, thanks to his mother’s cooking? Now, that was what he called island food. But no, these had never been enough for his ma. More than any other recipe, it was the black cake that brought that creamy tone to his mother’s voice. That shine to her eye. — Charmaine Wilkerson
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