Saturday, October 9, 2010

Rwanda book reviews: Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali shares the cheesy cheerful tone of the #1 African Ladies Detective Agency, another book written by a white person with extensive experience in Africa. Angel is a bubbly Tanzanian living in Kigali who bakes cakes that are described in tantalizing detail. She is a heartwarming character surrounded by a stereotypical but interesting supporting cast. Angel meddles in her friends’, neighbors’ and customers’ lives in the best possible ways, fixing up relationships, finding solutions to one friend’s problem in another friend’s problem, and dishing out life lessons.

The book is full of authentic Rwanda details - sometimes too full when it seems to go on about the contents of a shop or the specifics of a location for the sake of description that does nothing to enhance the plot. However, these details are mostly accurate, so for someone less familiar with Rwanda, they may be educational as well as atmosphere-building. This includes items such as that the “last” Rwandan name (which isn’t a family name) is stated before the Western name, a haunting but not overdone scene about the Murambi memorial, a description of the police and army trucks that have a long bench down the middle of the bed so that soldiers sit facing the sides of the road, and (close to my heart) complaints about wasteful expat salaries and unproductive development programs. Although I must warn that if you only start preparing cassava leaves only a few minutes before serving them, as is done at one point in the book, you will end up serving your children poison for lunch.

One detail that seems exaggerated are the constant references to HIV/AIDS as an unnamed spectre or “the virus” or “the illness.” Although it was published in 2009, the book takes place in 2000, and I don’t know what level of stigmatization and fear about HIV/AIDS were prevalent in Kigali at the time.

Another slightly irksome feature of the book was that the dialogue was peppered with oddities: “somebody” (never person, or woman, but somebody, as in “professional somebody”) and “late” in constant and exclusive reference to the deceased, most confusingly used in constructions like “her baby was late.” This may be a relic of a literal translation from the Swahili spoken by many of the characters, or a misguided attempt to sound African, but these words took me out of the book a bit whenever I came across them.

All in all, it’s a charming but not profound book. I recommend it, but it’s not one I’ll read a second time.

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