Baking Cakes in Kigali (Atlantic Books, 2009) is the first novel by Gaile Parkin, who was born and raised in Zambia, and has lived and worked in many African countries including Rwanda.
I didn’t quite know what to make of this book, and I see from other online reviews that I’m not alone in that. The story of Angel Tungaraza, a Tanzanian grandmother raising her five grandchildren in Rwanda after the deaths of her own children, it clearly owes a lot to Alexander McCall Smith’s Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency in tone and manner. Where Precious Ramotswe sets out to solve mysteries, Angel has a business baking cakes. It brings her into contact with people and their problems in a similar way though, giving Angel a chance to chat with her customers and often to help them in other ways besides baking. Each chapter is centred around a particular cake for a particular event so there is no overarching plot to the novel, beyond the general theme of reconcilliation after the genocide, highlighted by the relationship between one young couple whose families were on either side of the conflict.
There are a lot of issues brought into play – more than McCall Smith deals with – such as HIV, war, child soldiers, street children, female genital mutilation, genocide, reconciliation, ethics… While sometimes moving, there was too much for such a slender book to bear. Again, there were interesting thoughts on the roles of other nations and ideologies in Rwanda, sometimes thought-provoking but sometimes glib.
The dialogue was also in the same manner as the Number One Ladies’ Detective Agency. I have no way of knowing whether or not it’s an accurate reflection of the way people speak in Rwanda or Botswana, but it risks coming off as stilted or descending into parody.
On the other hand, I was reading it at a point where I wanted something positive, and it does a very good job of being charming and life-affirming too. There is plenty to like about Angel and her cakes, and the way she is always ready to help her neighbours and friends. There is plenty of joy and celebration too, and we all need some of that. Not to mention the cake…
So on the whole I’m inclined to like it, with reservations. Has anyone else read it? Do let me know what you thought!