Writings / Reviews

Fiction Review

Julia P.W. Cooper

Baking Cakes in Kigali
by Gaile Parkin
New York: Delacorte Press, 2009
308 pp. $24.00 USD

Never again. In Baking Cakes in Kigali, Gaile Parkin broaches the coincident inadequacy and necessity of this pithy phrase in contemporary truth and reconciliation era Rwanda. Upon visiting the genocide memorials of the country’s recent past, Parkin’s characters discuss the futility of an oath such as never again, an already broken promise which seems doomed to be spoken again. “No doubt sometime in the future there’ll be some other slaughter somewhere, and afterwards somebody will write in a book never again,” prefaces the novel’s Dr. Binaisa, who goes on to explain that nevertheless, the act of its writing is necessary: “Eh, but at least I wrote something, Tungaraza. That is better than the nothing that you wrote”(65). Parkin’s first novel grapples with the affirmation of genocide and a reckoning with the consequences of it in Rwanda’s reconstruction. It is through the character of Angel Tungaraza, cake-maker, mother, grandmother, and surrogate maternal figure to many, that Parkin illustrates the necessary diplomacy with which to discuss the project of rebuilding a community and a nation.

Angel and her cakes serve as the antidote to the tacit racial tensions in Kigali. Standing as an unbiased “professional somebody” who not only bakes for diverse peoples’ celebrations, Angel lends a healing ear to the narratives that led them there (127). With the force of the maternal emanating from the novel’s centre, the fluidity of family structures takes precedence, and the implicit suggestion embodied in Parkin’s countless orphans is that any hope of reconciliation must begin on the level of personal relationships. With the breakdown and disappearance of the traditional family structure, the often unspoken spread of HIV/AIDS, and the contradictions that arise in foreign and humanitarian aid efforts in Africa, Angel (and the reader) is confronted with the moral, ethical, and emotional complexities plaguing modern day Rwanda.

Although Parkin admirably delves into an impossibly and inevitably difficult subject in Baking Cakes in Kigali, the novel is lacking in notable nuance of character. While providing insights into a scarred society trying desperately to remember and forget, the novel remains fixed in the peripherals. The almost episodic glimpses into characters’ lives are interesting insofar as they offer a foray into a country’s panoply of experience, yet they do not resonate as more than mere snapshots of those experiences.
Nonetheless, Parkin succeeds in telling story of finding love and comfort, hope and design, in new forms of family. The novel speaks to the power of friendship and the force of the feminine in movements and moments of reconciliation. Overall, Baking Cakes in Kigali is a sweet first novel.

About The Author


Julia P.W. Cooper is completing a Master’s degree in English at McGill University. Her most recent research project is a foray into mourning, grief, and its limits, with particular interest in the plays of Sarah Kane.

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