Baking Cakes in Kigali Virtual Book Discussion

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.

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4 Responses to Baking Cakes in Kigali Virtual Book Discussion

  1. Sibille says:

    I both liked and disliked this book. I liked the story itself. It is a nice mix of happy and sad, but mainly happy, and I enjoyed the different stories about the characters. Each chapter felt a bit like a story in itself. It was an enjoyable read.

    But I was also disappointed, as I felt the stories were not developed in depth and the story stayed superficial. A lot of issues are touched on, not only how survivors of the genocide cope, but also about relationships and marriage, HIV/aids, parentless children, women coping alone, poverty, relationships between men and women, cultural issues, etc. It is great that the author did not shy away from talking about these things, as they are part of life, but I think just mentioning them is not enough and it might have been better to develop a few stories/issues in more detail, rather than mention so many.

    There are 2 exceptions to this, two stories that I feel really went deeper and made an impact:

    Jean d’Arc’s story and the way she sacrifices herself for her siblings. It casts a totally different light on prostitution and made me think of real-life stories people have told me. This really spoke to me, because we often judge people quickly without really knowing the full story. To me this is one of the most important things I have learnt from travelling: don’t judge people by your own cultural and moral standards. People are different, ways of life a different, and people’s life choices are different. What can seem wrong at first can turn out to be right once we know the context and the reason.

    I don’t remember the character’s name, but it was the lady who had a restaurant. The way she talks about loosing her whole family and not really living, just surviving until she can be with them again. Those few lines really went to the core of what genocide means and why it is such a horrible thing – you do not just kill people, you also take life away from those who survived. It destroys generations long after the event.

    Overall, to me the whole book was also too goody-goody and happy ever after, which is not a true reflection of what life is like for people with lives like those of the book’s characters. It was a nice story, and of course there is nothing wrong with a nice, but I expected more; more depth, more substance, more that would move me, make me think, make an impact.

    • beckyajohnson says:

      Thanks, Sibille. You make some excellent points. The restaurant character I think you’re referring to is Francoise. Your comments on not being so quick to judge also make me think of the character who is in the Rwanda military, but was previously a boy soldier. I think Angel and Sophie were quick to judge him as being a bit creepy because he is so eager to marry a white woman and escape his lifestyle. In all honestly, I would probably react the same way to the situation. But I think it is the apartment complex’s security guard who raises the issue of them not fully understanding the soldier’s situation and putting themselves in his shoes.

      My sister also found the writing a bit immature. I think she’s still finishing the story, but hopefully she will comment soon.

  2. Jenny Johnson-Riley says:

    This is Becky’s sister signing in. I haven’t finished this book yet because I wanted to get started on the next one. I only skimmed these posts, so I don’t know how it turns out. I’ll try to finish both books soon, and post about this one.

  3. becky sorensen says:

    I enjoyed reading this book, and loved Angel’s character. I spent time in Tanzania and reading about Angel and things she said and did made me want to be there.

    But when I reached the end of the book, I felt as if something was missing but I had a hard time trying to describe my feelings. I think there were so many great important issues that were brought up, but none of them got too deep…similar with the way we didn’t get to know any of the other characters too deeply.

    Now, part of me appreciated this because it was an opportunity to read something without being overloaded and depressed because of how insurmountable the challenges are…but on the flip side, it felt as if these deeply important issues were so lightly touched on that they almost didn’t seem as if they were really all that important….because of the light, airy-ness of the writing.

    So I’m torn…I liked it a lot. I would read it again, and I have passed it onto friends to read. It was an easy, quick read. But ultimately, it left me feeling unsatisfied at the end.

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