Baking Cakes in Kigali, By Gaile Parkin

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The Independent Culture

At the heart of this African novel is Angel Tungaraza, a Tanzanian woman who has recently moved to Rwanda with her husband Pius and their five orphaned grandchildren. Menopausal and putting on weight, she is an enthusiastic baker of delicious, brightly-iced cakes, which she sells to friends and neighbours. But Baking Cakes in Kigali is not simply a warm story of family life and friendship. For it is set six years after Rwanda's genocide of 1994 – "those hundred days while violence was tearing this country to pieces like a chicken on a plate".

The novel is divided into 14 sections, each of which hinges on a special occasion for which Angel bakes a cake. But over each celebration, full of promise for the future, hangs the shadow of the terrible past. A wedding cake celebrates the union of the shopkeeper Leocadie, whose mother has been imprisoned as a génocidaire, with the security guard Modeste, whose whole family were slaughtered. Their marriage is a concrete example of Rwanda's official policy of reconciliation. "There is no more this or that now," observes Angel's hairdresser with satisfaction. "Now we are all Banyarwanda. Rwandans."

Gaile Parkin has spent her life in Africa, including Rwanda, where she counselled women and girl survivors. With gentle humour and a gift for detail, she brings Rwanda to life, with its physical beauty, food and customs. The narrative centres on Angel's apartment block in Kigali, where aid workers from all over the world mix with each other and Rwandans. Through the similarity of their problems and joys, Parkin reveals a shared humanity. She also exposes a shared history of inhumanity, by connecting the Rwanda genocide to the Nazi holocaust. When a group of friends visit a memorial site, they notice that "Never again" is written over and over in the visitors' book. These are the very words, observes Angel, repeated when the death camps of Europe closed.

Pius questions the distinction between what South Africa calls "truth and reconciliation" and what Rwanda calls "unity and reconciliation". Could truth, he asks, make reconciliation impossible? Is unity possible in the absence of truth? Parkin engages with these questions through her central characters. At the start, Angel and Pius are withdrawn, unable to acknowledge that their daughter, diagnosed as HIV, committed suicide. It is only when they accept this truth that they are able to regain their closeness.

This is Parkin's first novel. At times (notably tea times) it has a coy and formulaic feel to its description of domestic life. But it is fluent and deeply moving, especially in its portrayal of women survivors. Most memorable is Jeanne d'Arc, who has worked as a prostitute since the genocide, when she was 11, to support and educate two young sisters and a boy with no family. Women like Jeanne represent hope for the future – a determination to ensure that the horror of 1994 will be "never again".

Susan Williams's book 'Colour Bar' is published by Penguin