Thursday, February 4, 2010

Literary Bite: Baking Cakes in Kigali

I’ve wanted to read this book since I first saw a review back in September:

A slice of life

All the sun and magic of Africa are baked into Gaile Parkin's debut novel set in Rwanda. Unlike Precious Ramotswe, that other icon of African charm and wisdom, Angel Tungaraza is not a detective but a cakemaker. As a "professional somebody," the grandmother provides a listening ear to customers and friends – and her teapot is always full. In "Baking Cakes in Kigali" (Delacorte Press, $24), we peek into a warm and practical community as colorful as Angel's dazzling confections.

- CS Monitor

Africa? Cakes? Two things I get excited about…aka I’m sold.

It's only out in hardback, so I was trying to hold out. Luckily, my suspense was eased by the gloriousness that is the library. I walked in to get my new card, and there on a display shelf sat Baking Cakes in Kigali, just waiting for me to take it home and snuggle in bed (is that creepy?).

It’s so refreshing to read a happy book about Rwanda. The characters really are delightful – Angel is a Tanzanian cake maker living in Kigali (the capital of Rwanda) in 2000 (6 years after the genocide). She is building her reputation as the best cake-maker in the city, while raising 5 grandchildren with her husband. Her clients come to her home to sit down and chat while drinking milky sweet tea, and order their cakes.

I will warn you, the story is a bit of a device. And while you’re reading it, you'll know that…but it doesn’t seem to matter. Let me explain what I mean by “device”:

Angel’s clients show a diverse cross-section of modern Rwanda – UN staffers, recent immigrants, genocide survivors, CIA, and volunteers. They all come to Angel to order cakes, and through this process, we learn about their stories, current problems, etc. The book runs the gambit of “Africa issues” – AIDS/HIV, genocide, racism, female genital mutilation, poverty, prostitution. But don’t let that list deter you! It’s really a good book, I promise you’ll enjoy it!

The author’s choice of centering the story on a cake-maker is truly genius. Think about it: cakes are ordered for celebrations – they are present at all big events. So though the story structure is kind of contrived, it’s believable. A diplomatic party needs a cake, as does a local marriage, as does a business event. So Angel has to be involved in all levels of society.

And her cakes sound gorgeous! The first chapter opens with Angel absolutely horrified that a customer is ordering an all-white cake for an anniversary party, “It was, quite simply, the most unattractive cake she had ever seen” (4).

Africans tend to like color (I hate to generalize an entire continent…but there it is). Angel prefers to make cakes “with an intricate design or an original shape and lots of colors” (19). I’m picturing Ace of Cakes-style here, with an African tilt.  Love it!

And I can totally picture Angel: a large African woman with colorful clothing and a wise motherly demeanor. I met so many similar matriarchs when I studied in Niger (which is the opposite side of the continent, but again, I generalize). These women know everything going on in the community, and you can’t leave their homes without eating something (and usually a lot of somethings!).

Even if you’re not particularly into cakes or Africa (what? Who are you?), I think this book is a really good story. Read it!

About the Author:

Gaile Parkin has spent her life in Africa, including Rwanda, where she counselled women and girl survivors. With gentle humour and a gift for detail, she brings Rwanda to life, with its physical beauty, food and customs.

She was born and raised in Zambia, and studied at universities in South Africa and England. She has lived in many different parts of Africa, including Rwanda, where Baking Cakes in Kigali is set. She is currently a freelance consultant in the fields of education, gender, and HIV/AIDS.

USA Today Review

Rebecca Reads Review