Book Review: Baking Cakes in Kigali

2009-02-16 00:00

GAILE Parkin’s central character, Tanzanian Angel Tungaraza, is in Kigali because her husband Pius is teaching there on a contract. With them are their five orphaned grandchildren — both Angel and Pius’s son and daughter have been victims in one way and another of the Aids pandemic sweeping Africa. Angel, an undeniable busybody, keeps herself busy by making cakes for various clients — for their weddings, birthdays, parties and all kinds of anniversaries. And along with the sponge and brightly coloured icing, she dispenses her wisdom, encouraging reconciliation Rwandan style and helping to heal the devastated city and its people.

I would imagine this is a book that will be popular with the book club market; it is entertaining, readable and has charm. Perhaps, particularly as it nears the end, it tends too much towards the didactic. But good news from Africa, even if fictional, is a sufficiently rare commodity to be very welcome, and Parkin’s debut novel is upbeat and amusing while not hiding the fact that it is set in a place that saw the most devastating genocide of the late 20th century and still has to deal with the aftermath, and with other issues.

It is impossible to escape the fact that Angel has more than a few similarities to McCall Smith’s Precious Ramotswe, the main ones being earthy common sense and a passion for tea — cardamom-flavoured in Angel’s case, which leads to one of the funniest scenes in the book. However, Parkin escapes McCall Smith’s endearing but questionable cosiness by making some of the less palatable aspects of life in Africa — specifically in Rwanda — central to her writing. It makes Baking Cakes in Kigali an impressive debut.

Margaret von Klemperer

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