Book review and synopsis for Black Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson, an eventful family drama about two siblings whose mother reveals their family history to them in her will.
Black Cake is about two siblings, Benny and Byron, who reunite after their mother has recently passed away. They learn that she has left them an inheritance of a frozen black cake in the fridge and a recording of her telling them the truth about her past and where she comes from.
Black cake is a desert that originates from the Caribbean Islands but relies on influences from other countries as well, resulting in a mixed history that is reflected in the story of this family as well. As Benny and Byron follow her story, they start to learn about the person their mother truly was and they come to understand what their roots are.
(The Detailed Plot Summary is also available, below)
Detailed Plot SummarySection-by-Section SummarySee the Section-by-Section Summary of Black CakeQuick Plot Summary
In Part I, Byron and Benny Bennett are two estranged adult siblings who reunite at their mother lawyer's office for the reading of their mother's will after her death from an illness. Benny has been estranged from the family for six years, since Thanksgiving 2010 when she came out as bisexual to her family. Their father, Bert Bennett, died a few years after that before Benny could reconcile with them. Benny attended the funeral, but didn't say anything to Byron or her mother.
Today, the siblings learn that their mother has left them a black cake (a traditional desert originating from the Caribbean Islands) and a recording which their mother, Eleanor, made prior to her death. The lawyer, Mr. Mitch, also informs them that they have a half-sister.
As they listen to the recording, Eleanor launches into the story of Covey, a girl growing up in the Caribbean in the 1950's. Along with her best friend, Bunny, the two were avid swimmers. Covey's mother Mathilda ran a bakery with the assistance of her mother's helper, Pearl. Covey's father, Lin, was the son of a Chinese immigrant who ran two small shops on the island. However, Lin was also a gambler, a habit that damaged the family's finances and eventually drove Mathilda away.
When Covey turns 16, she meets Gibbs Grant, a surfer, and falls in love with him. The two are inseparable and make plans to leave the islands together someday. Around that time, however, there is a fire that damages one of Lin's shops. Lin's financial troubles prompt him to borrow from "Little Man" Henry, an unsavory loan shark who is rumored to have once killed a woman who rejected him. Eventually, Little Man's attentions turn to Covey, and Lin's indebtedness to him force him to agree to a marriage between Covey and Little Man, which Covey desperately does not want. Gibbs is leaving to go to school in London and tries to convince Covey to sneak away with him, but Covey tells him she'll figure something else out.
When the wedding day arrives, Pearl poisons the top layer of cake (which the couple brings home) and decorates with lilac flowers (which Covey dislikes) to let her know. But during the toasts, Little Man chokes and dies, and Covey disappears. Covey then secretly finds Pearl who gives her some money that her mother had left her and the contact information for a woman Mathilda knew who can help Covey get off the island.
By fall of 1965, Covey is living in London under the name Coventina Brown and working as a nanny, though she later becomes Eleanor Bennett. On the islands, it's assumed that Covey murdered her husband and fled. In the recording, Eleanor mother reaffirms that she is Covey and that the story she'd told them about growing up at an orphanage is a story she borrowed from someone else.
Interspersed with Eleanor's explanation of her past, in present day, Benny reflects upon her life path. In their family, she and Byron were expected to be high-achieving to garner influence and professional opportunities. However, Benny dropped out of her elite university after getting beat up by two (gay) women for being a "traitor" for flirting with a guy. Benny then enrolled in art school and met her ex, Joanie. Joanie later broke up with her and moved to New York, and Benny followed Joanie to New York in hopes of reconciling. In recent years, Benny has been in an on-and-off relationship with a guy named Steve. Benny now hopes to open up an art cafe (cafe that also sells art) someday, but her applications for loans from the bank have all been rejected.
We also learn that Byron has an ex, Lynette, who has recently broken up with him. Also, while Byron is successful, he doesn't feel entirely fulfilled by his work since he's more of a spokesperson and media figure than a proper scientist. He has applied for a director-level position with his company (which would allow him to do more substantive work), but has been passed up twice.
In Part II, Eleanor continues the recording with the story of Eleanor "Elly" Douglas. Elly was raised in an orphanage and met Covey in London when they were both employed as nurses. Elly convinces Covey to leave London with her so they can pursue other dreams (Elly hopes to be a geologist), but they take a train that crashes and Elly is killed. When someone assumes that Covey is the one who died, Covey doesn't correct them, knowing that it's an opportunity to leave her past as a murder suspect behind. Instead, Covey takes on Elly's identity, going by Eleanor Douglas.
Meanwhile, on the Islands, they hear about Covey's death. Bunny is saddened to hear of the death, since she'd been a little in love with Covey in addition to being her best friend. Bunny has continued swimming since Covey left. Bunny was dating a guy named Jimmy and left him to be with a woman, Patsy, though she soon learned she was pregnant with Jimmy's child. Bunny ended up moving to England to continue her career as a distance swimmer along with Patsy as the two raised Bunny's son and Patsy's younger brother.
As "Eleanor Douglas", Covey moves to Scotland and takes a job doing office work. Things are going smoothly until one day, her boss rapes her. Eleanor soon leaves that job, but finds out she is pregnant. She takes refuge in a shelter run by nuns, but they eventually force her to adopt out her baby, who she named Mathilde (named after the woman who had helped her leave the island). A few months later, Eleanor spots Gibbs Grant. Despite knowing she should be cutting ties with the past, she calls out to him. Gibbs decides to give up his own past and changes his name to Bert Bennett so they can be together. (So, Gibbs and Covey became Bert and Eleanor Bennett.)
In Part III, in present day, Byron thinks about how his mother in her last few years seemed reckless and upset. (Flashbacks reveal that Eleanor had been upset over the absence of her first daughter.) Meanwhile, in those final years, Benny had wanted to reach out and had written a letter explaining to her mother what had happened with her at university and she apologized for not patching things up sooner. Benny had only sent the letter recently. She thought that she'd sent the letter too late (that her mother had passed away by then), but as they listen to the recording, Eleanor reveals that she'd gotten the letter, and she expresses regret at not being able to support Benny through her difficulties.
Another flashback reveals that even after their estrangement, Benny's father Bert had continued keeping tabs on her and even visited New York occasionally to see how she was doing, but he kept his distance thinking that she wasn't ready to reconcile. Unfortunately, Bert had died unexpectedly and was never able to reconcile with his daughter.
A different flashback discusses how in February 2018 (a year or so before Eleanor's death), she had gone to a talk being given by Etta Pringle, a famous long-distance swimmer. Etta is revealed to be Eleanor/Covey's childhood friend, Bunny. At the talk, Eleanor had discreetly told Etta that she goes by "Eleanor Bennett" now and lives in Anaheim.
Part IV introduces the character of Mabel "Marble" Martin. She is an "ethno-food guru" who has recently published a book on traditional food and how the "diaspora of food, just like the diaspora of people, has helped to shape many cultural traditions." Today, she is appearing on a television show and she talks about black cake and its origins. Black cake originated as a Christmastime fruit cake in Britain, but transformed into a rum cake when it was brought over to the Caribbean.
In a flashback, we learn that Marble was adopted by her (white) parents, Wanda and Ronald Martin. They never told Marble about the adoption, but she is slightly darker skinned than them and she suspects as much. In present day, Marble gets an e-mail from Eleanor's estate asking to meet with her. (In another flashback, we learn that before she died, Eleanor had recognized Marble, who looks like her, from a TV segment and had considered reaching out, but she didn't because she didn't want to reach out only to tell her daughter that she was dying.)
Meanwhile, back in California, Benny thinks about how she didn't go talk to Byron and her mother at her father's funeral. While they think she didn't show up, she actually did show up, but Steve is physically abusive towards her sometimes and had gotten violent with her the day before the funeral. Benny had wanted to talk to them, but didn't want them to notice her injuries. In present day, the lawyer Mr. Mitch also gives Benny some of her father's files, and Benny sees the receipts indicating that her father had gone to New York a few times to keep tabs on her.
In present day, Byron also gets back in touch with his ex, Lynette, (He attends a vigil for her nephew after her nephew faced an incident of police brutality.) He learns that she is pregnant with his child, and she wants to know how involved he wants to be. Byron thinks about it and realizes that he has never been good at showing the people he loves that he cares about them, and he wants to do better.
A short while later, Marble makes her way to California to meet Benny and Byron. It goes smoothly until Marble learns about her father (who assaulted Eleanor), and she leaves without saying goodbye. She ends up listening to Eleanor's recording along with her parents though, and eventually returns to California. When the three siblings are reunited once again, together they finally eat some of the frozen black cake that Eleanor left for them.
Inside the cake, they find a photograph of Covey, Gibbs and Bunny together. They also find some trinkets belonging to Elly. The trinkets turn out to be valuable old coins (a flashback reveals that they were stolen by a slave from her master and buried, and the slave left behind when she escaped. Elly then dug them up 200 years later.
Together, the siblings decide that it's time to go back to the island and find out what happened with their mother's murder charge. Before going back, they go to find Etta Pringle/Bunny. She recognizes who they are because Marble looks like a fair-skinned version of Covey and the other two siblings look like Gibbs. Then, all four of them travel to the island and go to visit Pearl.
They also go to see Eleanor/Covey's father Lin, but the meeting is brief since Byron gets mad at Lin for how he treated Covey. Lin is now wealthy after having finally given up gambling, making some money on the black market and having made some good investments in the stock market. Lin has a stroke as a result of the meeting, but he survives.
After all these events, Byron is inspired to take control of his life and to be a proper husband and father to Lynette and their child. He also sues his employer who he believes had unfairly promoted a less-qualified white man over him and uses the settlement to start his own consultancy company. Meanwhile, Benny has been getting more art commission lately and a illustration she did of Etta has gone viral. Benny also stops responding to Steve's calls and she flirts with a different man -- while she doesn't know if it'll work out, it makes her realize that she's open to love again.
In the final sections of the book, we learn that Covey had shown up to Bunny's place, distraught, after learning of her forced marriage with Little Man. The book hints that on the wedding day, Bunny had stolen the poison bottle that Pearl used for the cake and had used it to poison Little Man's champagne, which is what killed him during the toasts. The book ends with the three siblings scattering the mixed ashes of Covey and Gibbs into the sea along with the rest of the black cake their mother left them.
For more detail, see the full Section-by-Section Summary.