Baking Cakes in Kigali: A Novel by Gaile Parkin. Published in 2009.
Synopsis: Angel Tungaraza, a Tanzanian woman, has relocated to Rwanda’s capital along with her husband and five grandchildren. Living in a new, expat-oriented apartment complex, Angel operates a small business baking cakes for special occasions. A creative cake artist indeed, Angel always makes tea for her customers while inviting them to look through her photo album of previous cakes she’s made for inspiration. In this environment, customers open up to her and share their experiences as survivors of the 1994 Rwanda genocide, and people away from their home countries. While genocide, AIDS, suicide and female genital cutting are underlying themes, the novel generally has an upbeat tone.
About the Author: Zambian by birth, Gaile Parkin spent two years in Rwanda as a VSO volunteer. Many stories and characters in this book are based on or inspired by her experiences there. This is her debut novel.
Becky’s Initial Reactions
First of all, let me say that I loved the character of Angel. I think central to this book is that she is an ‘outsider.’ She is not Rwandan, so her neighbors, friends and customers feel they can open up to her and share their experiences with her from the genocide, losing family members, spouses cheating on them, and why they are working as commercial sex workers (I loved Jeanne D’Arc’s story as well). From my time as an expat, these were somewhat my experiences also, and I was often caught off-guard by how open and honest people were with me.
I was a bit surprised (but should I have been?) that the most ‘oppressed’ character in the book seemed to be Jenna, the American and wife of a supposed-CIA agent. Imagine a husband who wouldn’t let you leave the house on your own or develop a life of your own? The two Indian women appeared to sequester themselves of their own volition – germophobic reasons indeed. The African women – Amina standing up to her own culture and not allowing her daughter to be cut, Françoise and Odile as true survivors of the genocide with their own tragic stories to tell, the seventeen-year-old Jeanne D’Arc raising her siblings on her own since before she was even a teenager – these were all stories of powerful women, and Angel seemed to be the biggest feminist of all.
I’m not big on looking for symbolism in books, but I think the phrase on that piece of Ghanaian fabric Angel bought for Leocadie’s wedding sums up her role in the book – Help me and let me help you. Angel is the mother of the entire community, always giving out encouragement and advice – but it is the community and her friends who help her come to terms with her daughter’s death and their estrangement before that.
While the unique characters were mostly likeable (except for that Canadian, Dave and perhaps The CIA, Rob), at times it seemed there were too many and you never got to know most of them on a deeper level. I didn’t mind too much that the novel was not largely plot driven, and I appreciated both the anecdotal nature and sub-plots that drove the book.
Overall, I would give the book 4 stars out of 5 – I liked it a lot.
Enough from me, what did you all think of the book? Any particular characters or parts of the storyline that you particularly loved or hated? For those of you who have been to Rwanda, did you think it painted an accurate picture of contemporary, post-Genocide life there? Any questions you have for other readers?
Next Up : In the Land of Believers: An Outsider’s Extraordinary Journey Into the Heart of the Evangelical Church by Gina Welch. Discussion begins July 29th, 2010.