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It's not Mma. Ramotswe
on April 16, 2014
On a recent trip to the Hamburg library, my husband and I went our separate ways…he to the vast array of German-language books and me to the tiny English book section. Half an hour later, we met to check out and to our surprise, discovered we’d both chosen Baking Cakes in Kigali. I mean really, what are the chances, even if the cover pic and back cover blurb reminded us both of our beloved Mma. Ramotswe and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency?! Needless to say, I was excited and raced home to dive in. After the first 100 pages, my normal do or die limit, I saw my high hopes for this inspired concept waning, and instead wondered where this story was headed and when something…anything…would happen. It is obvious that Gail Parkin has an intimate knowledge of Rwanda and its people, of life after the genocide, and of the the varied types who find themselves there by choice or not, and I enjoyed learning more about this. Nevertheless, I felt the vehicle used to bring out those stories a bit contrived, and that every little thing she knew about Rwanda was packed into the book, sometimes inartfully.
I was so eager for a delicious story about a cake-baking lady whose wisdom helps those around her and whose insights help the reader experience Rwanda. Indeed, I love the character of Angel Tungaraza. She’s filled to the brim with the milk of human kindness, crafty when she needs to be, and someone I’d kill to meet. Unfortunately, much of the story is told when customers come to order a cake from Angel, and end up also telling her their entire life’s story. After a few sad or troubled souls comes to Angel and unload, none of their troubles having anything to do with one another, I felt overdosed on disconnected stories with no clear aim forward and no action. I also kept wondering why these people would tell such intimate stories upon first meeting Angel. The author tries to address this by saying it’s because they feel comfortable telling a foreigner their stories, but I can’t say I bought it. The good part, however, is that these stories highlight the social issues of Rwanda and I enjoyed learning about them.
Still, even the social issues begin to get tedious with some of Angel’s customers seemingly conjured up solely so the author can fit in yet another social ill. Almost pro forma, Ms. Parkin touched on every issue…genocide, child soldiers, female circumcision, street children, jaded relief workers, reconciliation problems, prostitution, AIDS, infidelity, alcoholism, sexism, racism. And all this comes to Angel’s doorstep because she’s the sympathetic cake lady. It just seems implausible and clumsily executed.
Having said all that, the book did seem to find it’s footing in the second half, and more seemed to happen than simply listening to stories. Angel gets out and about a bit more, and the stories are shown, not told. I know Ms. Parkin has written a sequel, and though I am not rushing out to buy it, I do want to read it because even from the beginning to the end of this book, I could see she was finding her voice and becoming a stronger writer. I expect good things from her.