Book review by me of Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin, Delacorte Press, NY, 2009.
This is a feel-good novel. Politically correct, it won’t offend anyone. Virtues of understanding, tolerance and compassion permeate the story, but still there is a plot inhabited by vivid characters.
The tale is set in contemporary Rwanda. With that as a backdrop part of unfolding the story has to do with post-genocide times – how people remember or not, how they interact or not, and how they get on with their lives, or not. Naturally Rwanda drew outsiders – volunteers, financial experts, professors, development gurus and others – who help to flesh out the community that Parkin creates. At the center of the novel is Angel Tungaraza, a Tanzanian whose husband is a visiting professor at the technical institute. Angel bakes and extravagantly decorates cakes to earn extra money. Thus, in addition to looking after her five orphaned grandchildren, cakes give Angel the opportunity to meet and get to know other characters in the story. She is an extraordinarily generous soul with a gift for drawing people out over a cup of tea. Along the way almost every topic comes under scrutiny: genocide – who are survivors and how do they cope; the roles – helpful , cynical or otherwise of foreigners; cultural differences – white vs. black or Asian, Rwandans vs. other Africans; traditional values contrasted to modern ways; AIDS - face it or hide it; female circumcision, street children, love, women’s rights, marriage…and the list goes on.
It is a gossipy book. There is lots of dialogue, but author Parkin has a good ear for how people really speak, especially Africans who, for example, use the word “late” in place of dead or died. There is a smattering of correct usage of Kinyarwanda, a bit of French and more Swahili. Kigali is authentically portrayed and Rwanda’s leaders vaguely referred to, but the plot focuses on the more mundane, but no less important aspects of life. Cakes are baked for mile-stones: birthdays, christenings, homecomings, engagements, reunions and weddings.
Author Parkin does a remarkable job of cutting to the quick and portraying the issues with perspective, humor and insight. She pokes gentle fun at human foibles. Readers will learn much about contemporary Africans – how they see themselves and how they see us. Ultimately Angel and all her friends come to a better understanding of themselves, each other and the world they inhabit.