Wednesday, October 28, 2009

a review of "Baking Cakes in Kigali"

Baking Cakes in Kigali: A Novel by Gaile Parkin
(Delacorte Press, ISBN 978-0385343435)

The aptly named Angel Tungaraza, the woman at the center of this book is, as described on the jacket,
"mother, cake baker, keeper of secrets- a woman living on the edge of chaos, finding ways to change lives, weave magic, and create hope amid the madness that is swirling all around her."
She has moved from her native Tanzania to Rwanda with her husband so that he can take a job at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, a new university in the capital city. They live in a compound of apartments, in a neighborhood housing a wide variety of people from around the globe, Americans, Canadians, Indians, Japanese, Europeans and Africans from throughout the continent to name a few, who have ended up in this post-genocide Rwanda, a nation trying to rebuild. They are there for a variety of reasons, diplomats, workers at the university, volunteers and UN workers and perhaps even a CIA agent. Many with a story that they share with Angel as they come to her so that they can hire her to make one of her very special, very beautiful cake for their 'occasion'. And it is these stories that are at the heart of this book.

There are the cakes for a birthdays or a christening, cakes for dinner parties and anniversaries, but then there are others of a more unique nature. There is the cake for a young man, kidnapped to be trained as a soldier when stll a boy, who has found, after years of searching, his mother and a sister who survived the genocide. There is the young girl who became a 'sex-worker' to support her younger siblings, who wants a cake for her sister confirmation. There is a soldier, perhaps driven mad by his past, who thinks a cake can convince a stranger to become his bride. And then there is Angel's own story, how she and her husband have had to take on the care of their two sets of grandchildren, five in all, after the deaths of both their son and daughter.

There are tragic stories, as Rwanda is a nation with a history of civil war and almost unbelievable horror and a nation still ravaged by AIDS, but don't get the idea that this is a sad book. No, there are a number of touching stories, a few that are laugh out loud funny and ultimately this is a hopeful, inspiring book. While dealing with a few of her own demons, Angel is a wise, caring woman, trying to make a small differences in the lives of her 'customers', a little fund raising here, a little match making there. This is a book that believes that healing, for a country or an individual is possible, and that one or two or three people, like Angels and some of her friends, can help be the agents of that healing and maybe find some healing for themselves at the same time.

Baking Cakes in Kigali is a pretty fast read, sort of a series of short stories, at least until the last part of the book that concludes in a grand event that weaves together many of the characters and storylines and ties things up nicely. The book has some great characters, especially some great female ones. It is a touching, sad, funny, ultimately sweet book that, against a backdrop of entertaining stories, also gives some insights into a number of the social, political and cultural issues facing many African nations. It is a book that tackle some very serious subjects but does so in a very gentle way and is a book I would certainly recommend to my readers.


  1. I'm anxious to read this - it sounds right up my alley!

  2. I should be reading more books set in Africa. I said that after I finished Half of a yellow Stone, which was three months ago. I think this one seems very promising.

  3. Loved your review, Caite! I have looked at this book in the store a few times and always wondered what it was about! It sounds quite good and different from many of the books out there.

    Thank you!

  4. What I find interesting about this premise is that it follows the becoming-cliched concept of many modern Western novels (about women cooking to relieve stress or rid themselves of problems, baking to tell stories) but takes place in a world where the horror isn't "my husband left me" or insecurities, but rather bloodshed, famine, disease, and other purely terrible events. This sounds like an interesting story, one I'd like to read and understand.

  5. Anon. Child, yes, I can see your point, but that cliche is not Angel at all. She is a mother, baking to provide for her grandchildren, and she is very concerned about seeing herself as a professional. She is a healer if anything. And then, as I said, I think there quite a variety woman presented in this book.

  6. is this written by that one author? i think the book is called white tiger? and its got a taxi on the cover with a purple background? the covers are very similar and i was going to read that one...

  7. this sounds like a wonderful read. My grandmother always baked to deal with stress.

  8. This is going on my wishlist.


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