Halifax Herald review of Reparations

A tale of corrupt Halifax

Halifax Chronicle-Herald
April 2, 2006

You know you’re in for a juicy roman à clef when the author admits that he was inspired to write a book in order to put in all the libellous bits that had been cut out of a previous work.

"I had wanted to describe the corruption that existed in Nova Scotia during that period because I was a young reporter then and covered a lot of it," Stephen Kimber says by phone from his office at University of King’s College, where the veteran journalist and Halifax native has taught for years. "But once I started writing, the story took on a life of its own."

It certainly did. From a tale of sleazy politics, Reparations morphed into the story of the citizens of the black ghetto of Africville, losers in a race war as white politicians of the city of Halifax razed their community in the 1960s. Along the way, Kimber spreads out before the reader all the nasty details about the corrupt, racist society that was Halifax in the not too distant past. Reparations is a page-turning distillation of everything Kimber hasn’t been able to print for the past 35 years. He lays it all bare: not just the racism which was only a boil on the body politic but also the cancer of corruption beneath.

"There was an attitude of casual corruption," Kimber says, that was based on assumptions of entitlement. Politicians use a local brothel as a social club and order police cars as unpaid taxis when they’re too drunk to drive. Lawyers who run the back rooms of politics use their offices as storehouses for cases of vote-buying booze and solve problems with envelopes — sometimes even suitcases — full of cash. The media cut deals to kill stories. The cops are thugs.

Current members of all these groups who read Reparations will think they recognize colleagues in these pages, often in unflattering and sometimes illegal poses. I certainly recognized some of those booze-fueled reprobates of old.

However, Kimber insists that he has copied only some characteristics or anecdotes from real life and that individual characters are compilations of traits from many people, topped up with the author’s imagination.

"I took bits and pieces of different characters," he says. "I didn’t have a vision of any particular person."

The title, although not catchy, accurately sums up both the theme of the novel and perhaps the author’s attitude to many of the people in it. Reparations refers to making amends, usually by giving money to people who have been wronged during war-time, such as Canadians of Japanese ancestry who were interned in prison camps during the Second World War while their land and property were illegally confiscated. In Reparations, Kimber is saying it’s payback time for Halifax’s black community.

The plot circles around a young black city accountant who is arrested for stealing from the municipality. He readily admits he took the money but says he was justified because he gave every penny to organizations that help the children and grandchildren of Africville refugees. He asks for a black lawyer who is a former radical activist to act as his public defender.

The young idealist, having set the plot in motion in the present, then disappears for 200 pages while Kimber takes us through a complex series of flashbacks that provide both the story of Africville’s destruction and the interconnected backgrounds of the people who ultimately end up involved in the trial. My God, but Halifax was a small town, as far as the ruling class went. And that is the most important point that Kimber makes in Reparations.

"In the 70s, Halifax was a very insular place," he says. "Everybody knew everybody. . . . There was a long period when nobody wanted to think about what had happened (to Africville). But Halifax is very different now. We’ve come a long way and I think people are willing now to think of it as history." Not pleasant history but water under the bridge in an era when the human rights commission can find that police wrongfully arrested a man for driving while black.

One telling detail from the book encapsulates how the city has changed. A foxy old lawyer advises the black defender not to worry about race during jury selection. Instead, he tells him to concentrate on getting newcomers to the city, people who don’t have that shared history of Halifax’s seamy underside.

Reparations works as a novel. Kimber uses his journalist’s experience to provide the telling details that make stories come alive without declining into breathless tabloid prose. He has a large cast of characters which he establishes well and manoeuvres adroitly while slipping between different plot lines and time periods.

He overuses the device of shutting down a scene at the moment a character is about to reveal an important fact in order to retain suspense. He needs to integrate the stoppage into the story better — a phone call, an interruption, whatever — so that the reader doesn’t feel the author’s heavy hand.

Kimber has written five non-fiction books and says his next project is a non-fiction work about Shelburne’s early history but that he would then like to write another novel, depending on the reaction to this one, his first. Reparations may not be popular in the South End of Halifax where power once resided but the peninsula’s influence is shrinking like an unused appendix.

In the suburbs, among the new-comers with their new money and growing power, Reparations will be a fascinating parade through the seedy recent history of their new home town. What’s not to like? It even has sex.

Robert Martin is a freelance writer who lives in Eastern Passage.