Atlantic £12.99 (361pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Baking Cakes in Kigali, By Gaile Parkin

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 At the start, Angel and Pius are withdrawn, unable to acknowledge that their daughter, diagnosed as HIV, committed suicide.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

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum