Located not too distantly from Alexander McCall Smith territory, Baking Cakes in Kigali nevertheless packs a unique and lovely punch of its own. Set in contemporary (read: still very much post-genocide) Rwanda, Gaile Parkin's debut has definite literary ties to the gentle and cozy world of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency - the "traditionally built" Mma Ramotswe and her endless cups of red bush tea - and could have easily fallen superficially under McCall Smiths' long shadow. But, as you are sweetly and compellingly tugged into Angel Tungaraza's world, it becomes clear that Parkin more than holds her own.
Possibly it's because, as an HIV/AIDS counsellor in Africa for several years, the Zambian-born Parkin has utilized her clients' stories, but it's also because the writer has a keen ear for the rhythms of her homeland.
More of a compassionate cake-maker and confidante than a crime-cracker - no detective shingle swings in the wind here - Angel probes the more ephemeral, less tangible side of things; life's little mysteries, if you will: love, loneliness, loyalty, the sometimes painful necessity of white lies. Part substitute mother, part matchmaker, Angel bustles about her kitchen, comfy in her oversized T-shirt and kanga (a kind of forgiving, wraparound skirt), baking up a storm for every occasion.
As the people of Kigali pass through her kitchen for a mug of cardamom tea and a bit of a chat, she sits and soothes, polishing her glasses whenever things get too tense and she needs to think more clearly. She is the ultimate good neighbour in an apartment building teeming with life's little intrigues.
To all intents and purposes, Angel appears to have it all together, a real "professional somebody" - albeit without business cards - offering an order form in four languages (Kinyarwanda, French, English, Swahili) and the uncanny ability to make luscious cakes in any shape, flavour or form, whether cellphone, dump truck or 5,000-franc note.
Even better, she has the perceptiveness to understand what clients want before they do: A busy father says that "any cake will be fine" for his daughter's birthday; a few firm but gently probing questions from Angel, and the girl gets a gorgeous chocolate airplane in flight, with smoke coming out of the engines to boot. The consummate entrepreneur, Angel also has the tact and diplomacy to ensure that the clients think that they made their all-important cake decisions for themselves.
Her passions are her husband, five grandkids, friends and neighbours, and her Gateau Graffito food colouring pens (regular shipments of which are brought in by Ken, a Japanese-American United Nations worker addicted to karaoke; his cakes come in the shape of a microphone, natch). In between baking, Angel dispenses her own form of justice, outsmarting a wily International Monetary Fund consultant, bringing business to a local restaurateur, matchmaking two lonely friends into a proper family, even gently guiding a father into christening his daughter Perfect instead of Goodenough.
But Angel also holds a sad, dark secret, a secret she keeps even from herself. And the seemingly cozy blanket of Parkin's approach belies the horrific tales that lie beneath, tales of poverty, genocide, AIDS and malaria, tales that Parkin doesn't attempt to muffle, allowing them to emerge clearly and concisely through her characters.
We meet genocide victims and genocidaires: a 17-year-old sex worker who is desperately trying to support herself and three siblings; a deadened soldier of the Rwandan army; an ambassador's wife; a nurse; and a Central Intelligence Agency worker's wife, whom Angel - in one of the more upbeat episodes of the book - promptly and successfully connects with several illiterate women for home-schooling lessons in French and English.
Within the confines of Angel's apartment complex, Parkin has created a veritable merry-go-round of characters from the lovelorn UN driver, perpetually looking for love (and who isn't?) to the sharp-as-tacks upstairs Italian-Somali neighbours, Amina and Safiya (no foolish women-victims these), to an Egyptian lothario, busy juggling bedmates, but so shy that when a young English volunteer mistakes his neighbourly request to borrow some cardamom for condoms, he can't bring himself to show his face.
It's the lively characters and telling little details of their lives that are so spot on: Angel using a liquid-filled Fanta bottle balanced on its side to see if an oven is level; a book club with one copy of Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart , which they pass around one to the other; the mother who uses a mosquito net expatriate volunteers gave her for her son, Beckham - "The baby had been named long before his birth for his incessant kicking at his mother's belly" - for her wedding veil. (In a tidy twist, this means that, strapped to her back during the festivities, Beckham finally does have his intended protection.)
In fact, like Mma Ramotswe's beloved Botswana, this is an Africa where almost everything does come right in the end.
Daneet Steffens is a writer, editor and critic who has worked in Manhattan, Accra, London and Newcastle Upon Tyne. She is the editor of Mslexia, a magazine for women writers (www.mslexia.co.uk).