Quill & Quire Review of Reparations

Stephen Kimber; $19.95 cloth 0-00-200564-6, 340 pp., , HarperCollins Canada, April

May 2006:

Stephen Kimber’s first novel, Reparations, takes a bold step forward for Halifax fiction and Canadian literature in general by confronting the still unresolved issue of Africville’s demise. In the early 1960s, the city razed the urban waterfront neighbourhood, breaking up and relocating its black citizens without explanation or compensation.

It’s gutsy for Kimber, a white Haligonian, journalist, professor, and non-fiction author, to address in fiction this painful part of Nova Scotia history, especially when officialdom turns so much of the province’s history into happy myth.

Kimber begins the novel with this provocative legal premise: in 2002, James Joseph Howe, a young junior finance official and Africville descendant, admits in court that he’s stolen hundreds of thousands in public funds and given them to various African Nova Scotian organizations, as “reparations” for Africville’s demolition. Imagine how such a symbolic, albeit criminal, act would resonate in Canada, land of public inquiries and commissions.

Surprisingly, and somewhat jarringly at first, Kimber then takes his focus off of Howe and his motivations. He comes back to him toward the end of the novel, but some readers may feel their expectations about Howe as a character were not met. Instead, Kimber shifts to Howe’s lawyer, Uhuru [Melesse], known as Raymond Carter when growing up in Africville, and the presiding judge, Ward Justice, who was once Carter’s friend. (They met when Africville kids were bused out of the community for school.)

Going back and forth over some four decades, Kimber uses Ward and Raymond’s intermittently crossed paths to get at the political and cultural currents running through the Africville story. Africville is a symptom of a larger condition: the racism and injustice embedded in the province’s political, legal, economic, and social systems. The story’s two main characters show how forces of history rush in and flood personal lives.

Kimber writes with confidence and an eye for detail about life in Africville. When Raymond brings Ward to his neighbourhood for the first time, he explains, “Where the pavement ends, Africville begins.” Such images imprint themselves on the reader’s mind. Characters like Jack Eagleson, the unelected but influential political player who guides Ward during his early political career, also make a lasting impression on readers. A true backroom manipulator, Eagleson shows the cynical heart beating in many politicians’ chests, how with each beat people in communities like Africville get hurt.

By the time Kimber brings us back for the Howe case’s conclusion, readers empathize with the disillusioned, fatigued colleagues. Raymond and Ward were once caught up in – and even shaped – history, only to be tossed around and washed up, forgotten.

Kimber falters a few times, but thankfully only in small ways. His frequent use of the interrogative occasionally disrupts the flow. Too often he poses questions in his third-person narrative voice to show a character’s struggle or moment of self-doubt. Another plotline involving Patrick, a disgruntled retired reporter, and his journalist daughter, Moira, feels like a device used to reveal the past and to allow Kimber to show how media play their role in history’s unfolding. Their relationship – Patrick’s hopes for Moira’s career and her desire for his validation – only distracts from the real story (an argument applicable as well to Rosa, a young woman two characters were involved with at different times).

Stumbles aside, Kimber shows ambition and results in his first novel. Much as Gail Bowen does with her Joanne Kilbourn suspense series set in Saskatchewan, Kimber delivers on his premise by mixing intelligent social commentary, a grasp of Nova Scotia’s recent and ongoing history, characters readers will care about, and suspenseful storytelling.

Reviewed by Sean Flinn