Opening Lines: In the same way that a bucket of water reduces a cooking fire to ashes – a few sputters of shocked disbelief, a hiss of anger, and then a chill all the more penetrating for having so abruptly supplanted intense heat – in just that way, the photograph that she now surveyed extinguished all her excitement.
“Exactly like this?” she asked her guest, trying to keep out any hint of regret or condemnation out of her voice.
“Exactly like that,” came the reply, and the damp chill of disappointment seeped into her heart.
When you read the cover blurb of Baking Cakes in Kigali by Gaile Parkin, you learn it is about a woman named Angel who bakes cakes in Kigali Rwanda. Each chapter is about a different celebration or party and the cake that Angel bakes for that occasions. When I first started reading I thought it would be similar to The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister a book where each chapter is about a single cooking lesson and the lives of one of the students in the cooking class. However, I was pleasantly surprised because Baking Cakes goes a little deeper.
The book reminds me of a sorbet I once had many years ago – a watermelon raspberry sorbet – easily the best sorbet I have ever had. Nothing else as even come close and to this day I cannot figure out how the chef managed it. Taking a spoonful of sorbet, my mouth first tasted the mild subtle flavor of watermelon and as it lingered the taste altered and deepened into the crisp tang of raspberry.
On the surface Baking Cakes is a book about a lovely woman (Angel) who is a fantastic baker and cake decorator who also happens to be maternal, menopausal, caring, and raising her five grandchildren in an apartment in Kigali. She bakes cakes for all occasions and takes a special interest in her clientele serving as baker and advice giver, supporter, and all around nice helpful person. Underneath she is struggling with the deaths of her two children, trying to find her way through menopause and raise five grandchildren and build a business at the same time.
Plus she lives in a country that has recently undergone a “never again” experience of genocide along with multitudes of other problems and issues found in Africa: Aids, boy soldiers, child prostitution, street children, Ebola, and female circumcision. This may sound like a laundry list giving such dire issues short shrift but, in my opinion, the author uses these issues to enhance her theme of truth, recognition, and reconciliation.
Pius was questioning Welcome on the significance of the distinction between what South Africa called “truth and reconciliation” and what Rwanda called “unity and reconciliation”. Could truth not make reconciliation impossible? he was asking. Was unity a possibility in the absence of truth?
The book describes the difficulty of witnessing horrific acts and being unable to do anything, the joy you can find in everyday life, that denial doesn’t work very well and that change and recognition can take time. Like my watermelon raspberry sorbet, Baking Cakes in Kigali may seem like a mild read, but after you get into it there is a lot to sink your teeth into.