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Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin
WHY THIS BOOK?
I actually bought this book myself from Amazon having read reviews about is and thought it sounded just my sort of book. The reviews had said if you like Alexander McColl smith's style then this would appeal so as we are going to Kigali in September I thought I would read it prior to our visit. I always enjoy reading books based on places we have been or plan or visiting soon so this was just perfect.
When I read I often alternate a deeper, heavier more difficult to read book with a lighter one just to uplift me a little. I had just finished, " What I Loved" by Siri Hustvedt which i had found quite deep and emotionally draining so I selected this from my shelf as I thought it looked like a lighter read.
The front cover is in bright yellow with browns, reds and greens, African colours I believe and it almost smiles at you it looks so happy. I know they say don't judge a book by the cover but that is often a good way to pick books as the publishers obviously spend some time and money creating a cover that will attract the kind of reader who will like that book.
This is Gaille Parkin's first novel and after reading this I do hope she goes on to write more as I did really enjoy her style and light humour. She was apparently born and brought up in Zambia and now lives in Africa but I am not sure which country.
Angel the heroine, much like Mme Ramotswe is a larger than life cheerful soul with a very positive outlook on life. She is actually from Tanzania but is living in Kigali as an expat as her husband is a lecturer at the college there. Angel has not had the easiest of lives and both her children are now "late" so she is bringing up her five grandchildren. In order to help out financially she creates the most amazing cake masterpieces for various other characters in the book.
I won't go into Angel's life history as you find out gradually in the book and I don't want to spoil it for you. The other characters are a mixture of other expats from various places and some locals. Through these people and their reasons for being in Kigali we do learn quite a bit about the horrific genocide in Rwanda. I loved the mix of people from the poor street kids to a wealthy Egyptian Expat who made his car and driver available to quite a few other people in the book.
The actual story is pretty simple but along the way we are enlightened as to the story of the Rwandan people. We are told of the horrors of the genocide, we discover how many suffer from the "virus " which is how AIDS is referred to and many other pretty unpleasant things but Gaile Parkin manages to intersperse the heavier, more emotional stuff with the lighter more entertaining snippets. You had to smile at the expat wives from India who locked themselves in their houses as Ebola was in the neighbouring country. I mean these were people from cities in India so hardly the cleanest places in the world and yet they harped on about germs all the time.
STYLE OF WRITING
I loved this author's style, she had a very easy to read way of writing. She has managed to pick up the African way of speaking and Angel's philosophy and approach to life is so very heart warming that you can't fail to like her. She does remind me so much of Mma Ramotswe but instead of the Redbush tea of Botswana we have the Tanzanian cardamom sweet icky stuff to share at every opportunity. Like Mma Ramotswe I get the impression that Angel enjoys her own cakes rather more than she should and has shared a few too many of the sweet milky teas so is a lady of 'traditional build'. Also like Mma Ramotswe she is no wilting flower, she is a determined strong personality and not many get the better of her but she is never unpleasant or rude.
Throughout the book the more traumatic things are dealt with in a sensitive manner yet somehow there is a lightness of touch so that the reader has time to reflect but not get too pulled down by these events. Angel thinks on these things and talks about them with her husband too but we are spared the worst of the atrocities. For example there is a Genocide Memorial at Murambi Technical school described by the author as having preserved bodies , Angel would not go in but her husband did so in that way the reader is kept slightly at arm's length. This does in fact exist as I have looked it up in Wikipedia and can imagine that it would be even more shocking than the tower of skulls we saw in the Killing Fields in Cambodia. This book doesn't ignore the events but doesn't dwell heavily on them either as I feel that the author is not writing that sort of story.
The author has managed to write a very warm caring story based in a city that has been through probably the worst genocide and civil war in modern times. This was not so long ago either, so wounds are still barely healed and the deep sadness and emptiness must still be felt by many of the people of Kigali. On top of the genocide and Civil war they now have a huge AIDS problem to cope with. I can't help but admire the strength of people who suffered all this and still continue to be cheerful, they are built of strong stuff indeed.
I have given some of my thoughts as I went along but I really did enjoy this book. I love the African philosophy dealt out by Angel. I also actually chuckled to myself at times with some of the descriptions of things that happened. For example the descriptions of Angels's cakes show that she loved bright colours and when she is asked to make a recreation of a wedding cake for the wife of the Tanzanian ambassador who wanted it exactly like her original wedding cake as this was a special anniversary. Angel was so disappointed as it was a traditional 'wazungu' ( European/white people) cake, all white and quite plain!
The book was a perfect balance of unpleasant truths and heart warming stories. It is a story full of interesting characters and every one comes to life through Parkin's descriptions. There are so many incidental characters we come across as they live in the same block of flats or work there or they are colleagues of Angel's husband. Angel welcomes them all and even though she has five grandchildren to bring up in the two bedroom flat she is resolutely cheerful and strong. She is always willing to lend a hand and seems capable or organising anything she sets her mind to.
I found this a very easy to read, entertaining and heart warming book to read and wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about African countries and particularly those who enjoyed the Alexander McColl Smith books set in Botswana as this is a very similar style. This is not the book to read if you want a real look at the Rwandan genocide story there are quite a few books that deal with that in a very different way. I am reading one '"A Sunday at the Poolside in Kigali" now that handles this in quite a different way and may well review that in the next few weeks. I am finding this one quite an emotionally draining read in comparison.
So i would say give this one a try it is a lovely book. Thanks for reading. This review may be posted on other sites under my same user name.
Angel Tungaraza and her husband have moved from Tanzania to Rwanda because more money can be earned there. After the Civil War money has been pouring into the country attracting foreigners from all parts of the world, business men, volunteer workers, UN and CIA employees among them. Mr Tungaraza works as a Special Consultant at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, Angel works from home, she bakes cakes on order for special occasions.
They're elderly people and could enjoy a quiet life as a couple after raising two children, but both children have died, their son was shot by robbers and their daughter died of AIDS. They've left three and two children respectively who now live with their grandparents.
I can see three levels on which the book works. Before Angel accepts an order for a cake, she talks with her clients so that she gets an idea of what kind of cake would fit them and the occasion they're celebrating. These conversations, always accompanied by tea and cupcakes are the string, so-to-speak, on which the stories her clients tell her are threaded. There is not one plot for the whole novel, each of the 14 stories has a plot of its own, there could be more or fewer stories, it wouldn't matter, but the stories are intertwined through the characters that appear in them. Someone who hovered in the background in one of the first stories may become the centre of a later one or relatives of people we already know appear and get a story of their own. This is cleverly done.
Angel Tungaraza inspires confidence, firstly, by her sheer physical appearance. She's a stout and portly lady of a certain age which means she's got experience of life. Secondly, she can listen. As her clients want a cake for special occasions of their private or professional lives, there's always a story connected with the order. Angel senses at once if there's something the client isn't telling her and if it would do them good if they did tell her. She nudges them gently and often the mere possibility of talking and having someone sympathetic listen helps them feel better. Last but not least her being a foreigner and thus impartial is also of advantage.
When Angel understands that a client has got into a rut they can't get out themselves, she becomes active, but always very discreetly. Often the people concerned don't notice her helping hand at all or they think that they themselves have solved the conflict. Angel is a born psychologist! In this respect the novel is heart-warming reading matter.
This is also true for another level, namely, Angel's cake business. She isn't an ordinary baker but an artist, a confectioner of the highest order. She makes cakes in the shape of an aeroplane, a microphone, a banknote, ying and yang, to name but a few - whatever expresses the personality of the person or the occasion the cake is for. She's got a photo album which shows cakes she's already baked from which a client without a clear idea can get inspiration. Angel is famous throughout Kingali, most clients come because of mouth-to-mouth recommendations. She enjoys her fame, she knows that she's good.
On the third level, and in my opinion the most important one, the novel is about the genocide and AIDS in Rwanda. Before going on let me make a detour. I think it's impossible for someone who's read the novels by Alexander McCall Smith on the Private Detective Precious Ramotswe from Botswana not to compare the two sets of books. McCall Smith praises Botswana for its stable political and financial situation. He's right in this, but there's also the sad truth that 36% of the population are infected with the AIDS virus, worldwide the second highest rate after Swaziland. Not a word about this in the Precious Ramotse books! One may argue that this doesn't belong to light reading matter but as McCall Smith paints an otherwise realistic picture of the country, I feel taken for a fool as reader.
Now, if someone recommended a reading matter to you on the subjects genocide and AIDS in Rwanda, you'd probably not rush to the nearest bookshop to get it. I can't praise the author Gaile Parkin enough for her achievement to tackle these horrid topics in a way that makes them tangible. We get to know people who've suffered as real people, not figures in statistics. By portraying them lovingly we feel and sympathise with them, we understand them as far as it is possible to understand for unaffected outsiders. By describing the small-small, the big picture forms in our minds.
The writing style is light, at times humorous. The sentence structure is simple with some strange constructions, "Our son was shot and our daughter *is also late*" or "He suicided" which I take for African English. What I didn't get while reading the book was if the author was a white woman or an African. The introductory remark 'Gaile Parkin was born and raised in Zambia and lives in Africa' doesn't tell me anything. On the net I found a photo, she's a white woman who's worked in South Africa and Rwanda 'counselling women and girls who had survived the genocide'. So she knows what she's writing about. Baking Cakes in Kigali is her debut novel, it's not great literature but it's a good read. An editor could have helped improve it, too many repetitions never do a book good.
It's true that we don't get much information about the physical aspect of the country, but in my opinion it wasn't her aim to write a guide book ornamented with some stories. To come to the conclusion, I'd like to quote a blurb, 'If you liked The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series, you'll love this.' (Woman & Home). True. I think you'll even find that Baking Cakes in Kigali is better.
RRP 7,99 GBP
Allow me to introduce Angel Tungaraza. She's a "traditionally built", middle-aged Tanzanian lady who has recently moved to Rwanda with her husband Pius, a university lecturer, and their grandchildren, the five orphaned children of her late son and daughter. Her son was shot during a robbery; her daughter evidently died as a result of some kind of brain haemorrhage that Angel says was caused by stress when her husband left her and their children for another woman. Just when they should be thinking about taking things easy, Pius and Angel have effectively become parents again. The seven of them and Titi, the young woman who lives with them and helps with the children, live in a small apartment in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and from that apartment, Angel runs her one-woman cake making business. Angel's cakes are the talk of Kigali; there are inventive, unique and so delicious that everyone knows there is only one person to go to when you need a special cake. But to know what kind of cake to make Angel needs to know something of the person for whom the cake is intended and through her clients we learn about the impact of the brutal civil war in Rwanda. The capable and dependable Angel - she describes herself "a very professional somebody" - listens without prejudice and dispenses sound advice when needed. As she gets to understand the people around her she finds it easier to accept her own circumstances and admit the truth about her own family.
It's difficult to ignore the very obvious comparisons between Angel Tungaraza and Alexander McCall Smith's sensible Botswanan lady detective Precious Ramotswe. It's not just the characters of the two women that are similar. The fairly inconsequential storyline (one might say lack of storyline) is generated in similar ways, allowing the women to meet a series of minor characters whose individual stories form separate but loosely connected chapters. With Angel it's the customers who come to order cakes that form the basis for each chapter and while we quickly learn a great deal about Angel, the other characters are developed only enough to tell a brief tale.
That the character of Angel is the most developed is understandable, she is the chief character after all, but the repetition does make her quite irritating at times. There is frequent mention of the voluminous wrap-around skirts Angel wears, her profuse sweating (would you really want a cake from a woman that perspires this much?) and the various items Angel deposits in and removes from her "brassiere". I'm sure this is done to really establish Angel's character and to give the impression that the reader knows her well but it does become quite wearing, I felt that it might also have been done to pave the way for more novels to feature the kind-hearted baker-cum-agony aunt.
While I have read and enjoyed several of McCall Smith's "Number One Ladies Detective Agency" series, I was interested in reading "Baking Cakes in Kigali" not for the connections but for the difference - the location. Post-genocide Rwanda is perhaps an unusual choice for a backdrop but it does through up lots of interesting storylines. In this novel we meet displaced persons - people who managed to flee Rwanda to find safety in neighbouring countries who have now come back to start again in Rwanda, aid volunteers, nurses who work in AIDS education, women who witnessed the brutal murder of a husband or son - sometimes a whole family, foreign judges working in the genocide trials and the wife of an American who everyone is sure is working for the CIA.
Unfortunately I didn't feel that any of this captured what is essentially "Rwandan" and much of this could have been said about any of several African countries. Nevertheless, this aspect is interesting and reinforces the sad truth about much of Africa. I asked two friends about whether they thought the author had given a flavour of the real Rwanda - a Rwandan woman and my English friend who is her husband. They both said the likeness was superficial and that the author didn't really portray any of the Rwandan character.
Of course, as the novel features many characters that are not, in fact, Rwandan at all, this is partly to be expected. However, this was a disappointment for me. If the book is set in Rwanda I'd like to know something of that country foremost. On the other hand, the fact that Angel is not Rwandan is important to the story because she is effectively impartial. People open up to her because she is not Rwandan and her opinions are coloured by her experiences of the war.
In spite of those criticisms I did enjoy "Baking Cakes in Kigali". The writing is quite charming and Angel is an engaging character. I loved the descriptions of her marvellous cakes as well as the hearty meals she cooked for the family. I also loved the strong moral thread running through the book and I couldn't help smiling as Angel worked all kinds of philosophical and ethical questions through her head. Some might say this is a twee book but I think that would be unfair. The humour is gentle but there are some quite serious points being made, even if they could have been made more forcefully.
I do hope there won't be any more books; I can't see how the story can be continued and can only imagine that a follow up would continue this format with a string of cake-buying customers telling their own stories. It could become quite quickly stale.
I'd have thought fans of "The Number one Ladies Detective Agency" would enjoy this but as a stand alone work out of genre it's an enjoyable easy read, perfect for throwing in the suitcase.
361 pages (however, my paperback edition has fewer words per page than many paperback formats so this is deceptive)
If you're a fan of the wonderful No. 1 Ladies Detective series by Alistair McCall Smith you will love this! Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin is a wonderfully-written novel set in Kigali, Rwanda. The language is simple and engaging and you instantly fall in love with the lead character, Angel - a highly-likeable, solid, traditional African woman with strong morals who makes a living baking cakes within the local community. Each time she bakes a cake for one of her fellow neighbours, a fascinating new story transpires bringing to life a colourful picture of life in Kigali. As the novel is based in Rwanda it touches on some hard-hitting topics such as AIDS and the horrific genocide which happened in Rwanda some 10+ years ago. Stories are told, but in a light-hearted way. This is not a history of Rwanda, but a gentle, enjoyable novel that you will find hard to put down. Good summer-time read, perfect for the beach, that will leave you wanting to learn more about this fascinating country.