Friday, May 23, 2014

Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

I would never have picked up Gaile Parkin's Baking Cakes in Kigali if it wasn't my book group's choice. A funny, heartwarming story about a baker in contemporary Rwanda? I was dubious, and the whimsical book cover design didn't help.

When I read about the lives of people in other parts of the world, I want authenticity. The author grew up in Zambia and has worked in Rwanda, where she counselled girls and women who survived the 1994 genocide. While that is in her favour, the fact that Parkin is white meant she was going to have to convince me in her portrayal of the central character, Angel Tungaraza.

It took me a while to relax my critical attitude. Some slapstick humour at Angel's expense gave me the idea Parkin was making her a buffoon. I did not like that. Eventually, however, I was won over. Angel is a wise woman with a huge heart. I was charmed in spite of my misgivings. I appreciated the feminist emphasis throughout the book, as well as the strong sense of community. I also like the way that difficult topics like AIDs were handled.

I had only read two other novels set in Rwanda: Deogratis (Jean-Philippe Stassen) and Broken Memory (Elisabeth Combres). Both are set closer to the time of the genocide than Baking Cakes in Kigali. I welcomed the hopeful tone of Parkin's novel and the way she shows that healing has happened and is ongoing. I could have done with fewer of Angel's menopausal hot flashes, but I now feel like I have a more rounded overall impression of life in Rwanda.

Readalike: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (Alexander McCall Smith).

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