Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Review: Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

This blog is actually a reincarnation of a project I did in college for a web design class. I had to design my own website for a topic of my choice and so I created a book & movie review site of the same name as this one. I plan on re-posting at least two of those book reviews on here at some point, so here is the second of them, in full, with only a few minor formatting changes.

Baking Cakes in Kigali is an easy balance between heavy topics and lighthearted fun. Gaile Parkin sets out to tell the story of Angel Tungaraza, a caring menopausal woman who runs a cake baking business out of the international apartment complex where she lives in the heart of Kigali, Rwanda. Angel is lovable, though she does little to break out of the sterotypical sweet older lady role. She bakes cakes for her neighbors, and while she charges them for her creations, each one is designed with love, as a favor for a friend, even those friends she may have just met. She meddles in the lives of those closest to her and does her best to make sure that everyone is happy.

Even as a stereotype, Angel works in this book, because of her sugary-sweet personality. The book is filled with an undercurrent of mixed emotions left over from the horrors that occurred there in 1994. Many of the characters have their own horror stories to tell when the subject comes up and though many of the characters are international, the topic is still essential to the story. Angel's presence makes the Rwandan characters more at ease, she gives them the opportunity to say things that they cannot say to each other, partially because of her ability to make anyone around her feel comfortable, and partially because of her status as a visitor to Rwanda (She's a native Tanzanian). The theme of reconciliation in this book is highlighted by the wedding that Angel facilitates between Hutu Leocadie and Tutsi Modeste. She brings these two happy lovers together by both finding money to pay for their wedding and making all the arrangements as if Leocadie was her daughter. The symbolism here is clear, but it does not come off as too forced; the plot follows logically throughout the book, without the interruption of politics.

This is not the only weighty topic in the novel though, as Angel struggles to accept her HIV positive daughter's suicide and teach her grandchildren about sex and STDs. Parkin manages to keep the book on the upnote, though, by making these topics funny. Slight misunderstandings between culturally diverse neighbors, such as confusing the word cardamom with condom make for comical interactions and allow the reader to enjoy the book without getting weighed down by the more difficult topics. 

You can learn more about the book here.

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