Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Review: Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

I suspect that I am not alone when I admit that the sum total of my knowledge of Rwanda is of the genocide and the animosity between the Hutus and the Tutsis. So I wondered how a Rwandan-set book could possibly be described as hopeful and healing. But obviously I have no conception of the ways in which Rwanda is overcoming the horror and learning the art of reconciliation. And after all, 1994 is more than 15 years in the past.

Angel Tungaraza is a Tanzanian woman who bakes elaborate and beautiful cakes out of her home. She lives in Kigali in an international apartment comlpex with her husband, who is teaching temporarily at the university. Together they are raising their five orphaned grandchildren and looking for the positive in each day given to them. The chapters often feel like small vignettes as Angel's customers tell her their tales when they come to order the cakes for which she is rightly famous. And indeed, many of the tales are adapted from tales that Parkin herself heard when she worked in Rwanda.

The tales are everyday and extraordinary. The gentle, unthreatening manner of the telling doesn't sugar-coat the atrocities that the Rwandan people lived through but it also makes clear that people continue to live and make their way as best they can despite the horror in their pasts. Obviously the genocide makes its appearance in the stories told to Angel but so does the problem of AIDS and its plague-like proportions. And in fact, Angel knows that AIDS would have eventually claimed her son if robbers hadn't killed him first. But through all the heartache and the history, Angel is a happy soul, a celebratory person, and her wisdom and contentment, her very peaceful happiness is contagious.

Angel starts every cake ordering appointment with tea and conversation, often counseling her customers and helping them improve their lives. She manages to extract justice for the downtrodden and supply the wedding of a friend's dreams. She teaches others and inspires young girls. She gives relationships a little shove in the right direction. And she generally understands and appreciates the value of the people around her. In short, she's just a little bit magical in a very down to earth, pragmatic way.

The importance of education and pulling heads out of the sand to address the problem of AIDS is a huge theme throughout the book as is the idea of reconciliation and making things right. Angel was a delightful character and as the center of the book, made for a charming reading experience. The cake customers become an integral part of Angel's life and Parkin intertwines their stories well. The underlying issues that come up in the book are perhaps much deeper than one would expect but they give the story a depth and a seriousness that, interestingly, is not at odds at all with the light, uplifting tone of the narration. This is a beautifully done book and I would certainly read more about Angel given half a chance. A novel about Rwanda that is hopeful and healing? Absolutely.


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