A beautiful and heart-breaking story set in South Africa where two mothers – a century apart – must fight for their sons, unaware their fates are inextricably linked.
Orange Free State, 1901. At the height of the Boer War, Sarah van der Watt and her six-year-old son Fred can only watch as the British burn their farm. The polite invaders cart them off to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp promising you will be safe here.
Johannesburg, 2010. Sixteen-year-old Willem is an outsider who just wants to be left alone with his Harry Potter books and Britney, his beloved pug. Worried he’s turning out soft, his Ma and her new boyfriend send him to New Dawn Safari Camp, where they ‘make men out of boys.’ Guaranteed.
The red earth of the veldt keeps countless secrets whether beaten by the blistering sun or stretching out beneath starlit stillness. But no secret can stay buried forever.
You Will Be Safe Here is an utter triumph!
I want to leave this review exactly at this point, because I’m scared that I can’t do it the justice it deserves. To give it less, would be an injustice to Damian Barr’s stunning debut.
Reading has been a life long passion from the moment a dedicated teacher took aside a child who struggled to concentrate and created a devoted bibliophile. It has been books such as You Will Be Safe Here, which from that point have lit up my reading world. Stories, such as that of sixteen year old Willem, that have created within me a reminder, as if one was needed of why books and reading nourish my soul and keep lit the love for books that teacher instilled in me.
Damian Barr has written a moving story that tilts the world on its axis and reminds us all, to question the assumptions we have of our past and create a fairer truth from the forgotten struggle of others. With the story of Sarah van der Watt and her six-year-old son Fred, it acknowledges the actions of the British and the horrifying reality of the concentration camps that were set up and in which thousands died. Yet this is not a story that left me as a reader laden with heartbreak and guilt, because it also uplifts you and heals you. From the darkness the writer has created a story of hope, of the strength of two women joined across the centuries and a boy called Willem. In You Will Be Safe Here, the writer evokes the horror of the concentration and modern training camps and yet also manages to celebrate the human capacity for kindness and difference.
For me the character of Willem is a shining light. He makes this story one about love, as much as it is about facing the realities of the darker side of human nature. His differences are his strength, for they are what makes him precious and why sending him to New Dawn Safari Camp, where they promise is to ‘make men out of boys’ is such a tragedy. One that continues even today in South Africa and why Barr’s novel is of such importance, he gives these boys a voice and shatters the silence around the brutality of abuse. As a character, his essential humanity, caused me to fall head over heels in love with this honesty and vulnerability. Just as in the narrative set in 1901, there is also a parallel between the story of the sons in You Will Be Safe Here, both seem to stand for the essential innocence of our children, if they are allowed to flourish and are not crushed by doctrine and cruelty.
There is a sinuous feel to the writing, characterised by a series of graceful curving motions, as he propels the reader along, that darkness can be pushed back, by the light of goodness and a determination not to accept cruelty and ignorance.
If you are looking for a book that creates a powerful narrative, written with a understanding of human nature, then You Will Be Safe Here needs to be the next book you buy and read. It is special in ways I don’t have the skill to adequately explain, but I promise you, it is a compelling and compassionate read. It marks the beginning of a career in fiction writing that will see Damian Barr become of our nations most celebrated writers.
About the author
Damian Barr is an award-winning writer and columnist. Maggie & Me, his memoir about coming of age and coming out in Thatcher’s Britain, was a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’, Sunday Times ‘Memoir of the Year’ and won the Paddy Power Political Books ‘Satire’ Award and Stonewall Writer of the Year Award. Damian writes columns for the Big Issue and High Life and often appears on BBC Radio 4. He is creator and host of his own Literary Salon that premieres work from established and emerging writers. You Will Be Safe Here is his debut novel. Damian Barr lives in Brighton. You can follow him on Twitter @Damian_Barr