Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Review: Baking Cakes in Kigali

Title: Baking Cakes in Kigali

Author: Gaile Parkin

Publisher: Delacorte Press

# of Pages: 308

Rating: 6/10

Favorite Line: But she did not understand how it could be important to learn the name of every single star in the sky; surely it was better to know the name of every person in your street?

This review is based on an advance reader's edition.

Product Description
Meet Angel Tungaraza, professional cake-baker, amateur matchmaker, an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. A uniquely charming, funny and touching novel of life, life and food set in Rwanda, a country recovers from unimaginable terror and violence. Angel Tungazara has recently moved to Rwanda from her native Tanzania. With her husband, Pius, and the five orphaned children of their late son and daughter, she is hardly short of things to do. But she still finds time to pursue her hobby and her passion, her small but increasingly successful business, baking individually-designed cakes for the parties and celebrations of her neighbours and their friends. Angel is entirely aware that many of the Rwandans around her have witnessed and survived horrors she can barely imagine. But she also knows that their lives continue, that they also have reasons to celebrate, to be joyous and to be happy. As she gets to know her neighbours and as they tell her their stories, she comes to realise how much each of them has to mourn as well as how much they have to celebrate. And, finally, she comes to accept how much that is true of her too.

I don't quite know what to make of this book. It has a really beautiful theme of celebrating small victories after surviving horrible situations. It also does a brilliant job of describing the AIDS crisis in Africa in a very moving way. The author, Gaile Parkin, does not throw statistics in your face. Rather, she quietly describes how people in Africa- everyone in Africa- is affected by AIDS, even in just the tiniest of ways. Almost every character in the book has a family member with AIDS, and the way each person has adapted to living with the disease makes for compelling and moving reading.

At the same time, though, I don't think the writing style was all that great. I am not sure if the author wanted to achieve a very particular style, but I found the storytelling language a bit stilted and awkward at times. It was fun to read the different dialects and mannerisms of Rwandans, but it could also get tiring when conversations would consist of saying, "Eh," and "Uh-uh" about ten times. Maybe those phrases are used a lot in Rwanda, but it can get annoying to read them so many times in a book. And sometimes the way people talked seemed very structured- as though the author were using the same phrases over and over in the way that a young author might, rather than one who has a full command of vocabulary. I have a feeling that this was all done for stylistic purposes; if that is the case, though, I think it could have been done in a cleaner manner.

There isn't really a plot to this book- there are just vignettes, basically, of everyday life in Kigali, Rwanda. The book progressese chronologically, but it could have just as easily been told in a short story format. I can't really say that there was rising action or a climax or falling action. There was just... activity. But it was a really nicely put-together way of reading about very serious topics such as AIDS and genocide, and how it affects the lives of people living in Rwanda. If you want a gut-wrenching and tissue-requiring read for those sorts of topics, steer clear. But if you'd like to read a book about how people survive such things, and adapt their lives around them, then this is the story for you.


  1. After this review, perhaps not for me, it started of good. But then, those things you mentioned, perhaps not

  2. I hate to say this, but it sounds like this book is a riff of Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I would love to read more fiction from Africa and African writers, but something more original would be nice!

  3. A lot of people have said that, actually. I've never read that series, so I can't really say. But it's definitely been commented on before.

    I don't really have any suggestions for African fiction, either :-(

  4. I had wanted to read this book, but after reading your review, it sounds like I would probably find it pretty annoying. I don't like books that have a stumbling dialect, and I am not really crazy about stories without a clear cut beginning, middle and end. Sorry to hear that this wasn't great, but I am glad to have read this review.


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