"Black Cake" opens with an almost classic scene that opens so many family dramas: the mother of the family dies, and her children are called to the lawyer's office for the reading of the will.
There, according to the recipe, a surprise awaits them, either in the will itself or in the form of a tip that leads to the revelation of family secrets that shake their world.
In this case: the late Eleanor Bennett bequeaths her son and daughter a black cake, which is waiting in the freezer for the right time when they can sit down and eat it together, and also a recording in which she tells what she did not dare to tell them in her life, the stories of her life, which are guaranteed to rock their world.
Charmaine Wilkerson handles this scene, and the story that unfolds after it, with great skill and grace, as well as momentum and rhythm - "Black Cake" is made up of short, compressed episodes that seek to be translated into television language, and not surprisingly, this will happen soon, as announced by Oprah Winfrey's production company.
However, this stylistic decision of Wilkerson's is at the heart of the book, and as much as he promises - many promises, expressed through the raising of more and more disturbing social issues - he fails to deliver, because every scene in it begins and ends almost with a breath, which does not allow for in-depth but skimming only.
In the said recording, which lasts for several hours, the story of the mother's life unfolds: the daughter of a black mother and a Chinese father, who grew up on an unnamed island in the Caribbean - Jamaica, as it is easy to guess, and as is explicitly stated in the notebook's note that seals the book.
She grew up in hardship and poverty, which was intensified when her mother finally abandoned her father, the alcoholic gambler, and at the age of 16 she found herself forced to marry a loan shark, who was also rumored to be a murderer.
In those days she was called Conventina Lincock or "Coby" for short, she loved to swim in the sea, she had a soul mate, Bunny, and also a lover, Gibbs Grant, a surfer with whom she dreamed of immigrating to London to study at college, and escape the despair of life on the island.
The forced wedding was the turning point in young Kobi's life, not only because it forced her to give up her dreams, but because on the night of the wedding, while the guests were raising a toast, her husband died unexpectedly and it turns out that he was poisoned.
She is suspected of murder and is forced to escape and also change her identity.
The winding path Coby took until she eventually became Eleanor Bennett, passed through London, where she worked, among other things, as a nanny, in Scotland, and finally in California, and included name changes and changing other identities of herself and others who disappeared and reappeared in her life.
It is not always easy to follow these revolutions, mainly in light of the author's deep fondness for names beginning with the letter B (Benny, Byron, Brett, Bunny, Bennett, for example), and also because Wilkerson moves back and forth in time, between the present and the sixties, and between different points of the heroes of the book.
But it is precisely the slight confusion that may attack the readers here and there in transitions between times or places that serves well the central theme of "Black Cake": the difficulty of forming and grasping an authentic and coherent identity.
The cake - a compressed dessert packed with dried fruit and soaked in rum - is a clear symbol of this difficulty.
Eleanor clings to the recipe as the only remnant of her original identity, the one she had to give up in order to survive, as the only ingredient she can pass on to her children to connect them to the heritage she was raised on.
In practice, as her son explains, it is a recipe that originated with the white colonialists, and its ingredients - sugar cane - also came with the occupation, oppression and exploitation of the Caribbean residents.
Like any traditional food, the cake carries a huge emotional charge, and Wilkerson does a good job of illuminating how we hold on to this charge even when the true history of our customs, foods or symbols is based on a fabricated story.
The family drama, the one at the core of the story, is multi-layered.
Eleanor's children, Byron - the successful but frustrated scientist, who bought him publicity in the media, and Beni - the artist who dropped out of her studies at a prestigious institution and at the age of 40 is still looking for herself, did not speak in the years leading up to their mother's death.
Their father, who also has an important part in the story, passed away earlier, and his death left open wounds that are apparently too late to heal.
While listening to the recording left by the mother, it becomes clear (spoiler alert) that there is another half-sister who was given up for adoption, and her identity was revealed completely by accident.
Wilkerson appeals to us with more and more characters and splits the story into more and more separate paths - all of which will come together again in the (good) end but not before every detail of Eleanor's "official" life story, as told by her to her children while she was alive (according to which she grew up in an orphanage) is deleted And replaced by his version that was kept for many years as a dark secret.
Since the revelation of the family's secrets does not end when listening to the recorded will, Benny and Byron embark on a journey whose purpose is to re-examine their identity.
They locate and meet everyone who is still alive and their journey, like the characters they meet along the way, is interesting, but unfortunately not without clichés.
Byron and Benny are typical immigrant children, driven to excellence, and in an attempt to assimilate perfectly into American society, they become more and more self-centered.
The women of the island, who turn out to have had a decisive part in the story of Kobe's/Eleanor's escape, are described as generous and demonstrate a mixture of unsentimental stories with an almost boundless willingness to sacrifice, as well as Gibbs, Eleanor's childhood sweetheart, who is destined to play an equally central role later in her life.
The way in which Wilkerson hurries to tie up all the ends of the story, without leaving anything open or unexplained to further trouble the mind, is quite disappointing.
In the course of the story, she touches on an abundance of charged issues, starting with structured institutional racism, prejudice, cultural appropriation, discrimination and ethnic oppression, and ending with police violence, sexual assault, and forced adoption.
But the short chapters do not allow her enough breathing space for a deep and complex engagement with each of these topics.
She also seems to be in a hurry to bind up all the wounds of her heroes: Byron discovers that he is about to become a father and decides to become an attentive and communicative man, Benny finds within her the courage to break a violent relationship, and also discovers that despite the estrangement from her family, her father used to travel to New York again and again just to see her from afar.
Wilkerson's writing is polished, Rachel Penn's translation is excellent, and despite this, reading "Black Cake" is accompanied by a slight taste of disappointment.
A Black Cake, by: Charmaine Wilkerson, from English: Rachel Penn, Penn Publishing, Yedioth Books, 416 p.
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