Source: Review copy
Publication: 2nd April 2020 from Bloomsbury
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.
My sincere apologies to Damian Barr, Bloomsbury and Anne Cater for missing my scheduled stop on the blog tour this week. This pandemic has somewhat scrambled my brain and I have ended up not coping quite as well as I thought I was. So this review is late, but that’s on me, not anything to do with this wonderful book which I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to read.
You Will Be Safe Here is a wonderful, achingly haunting book. Set in South Africa, it moves from the time of The Second Boer War, fought between the British Empire and two Boer states, through to contemporary times.
In the first part of the book the narrator is diarist Sarah van der Watt whose husband is away fighting for the Orange Free State against the British. Sarah and her six-year-old son Fred are ousted from their home and then they are carted off on a terrible journey which ends at Bloemfontein Concentration Camp, a filthy, disease ridden tented ‘refugee’ camp where those who have not yet capitulated to British will are kept starving and without adequate water while the British tell them they are there for their own safety and that ‘you will be safe here’. Never have words rung so hollow.
Sarah chronicles the dirt, disease and desperation among those who survive in the camp and the lengths that they go to, to try and save their children from the typhus and typhoid that claims so many lives. The camps are bigger killers than the war that is being fought, claiming more victims than the soldiers ever could.
Willem Brandt was born into a new South African era. On the very day that Nelson Mandela was elected his country’s leader, Willem made his way into the world. His father was a larger than life figure who was never really there. He was a drug dealer with great intentions but no follow through and Willem was brought up by his mum, Irma and his gran, Rayna a woman of courage and strength who brought Irma up as a single parent.
Willem is a sensitive lad, who loves books, especially Harry Potter, and his dog, Britney. Bullied at school, he is finally expelled over an accident that was none of his making. His mother and his new almost step-father, Jan don’t know what to do with him. Except that Jan, a white supremacist, is an AWB follower; a South African neo-Nazi who believes that he has found just the place to make Willem into a man.
Willem is sent to the New Dawn Safari Camp where his nightmare really begins. It’s terrifying to note that both in his contemporary setting and in his recounting of the Bloemfontein Camp, Barr is articulating real stories, writing about genuine conditions on the ground and thus he creates a vivid and terrible picture of what Willem goes through and what Sarah suffered.
Barr finds the perfect way to link these stories together and as a whole he offers us a brutal, uncompromising portrait of the horrors and difficulties of both these eras. In the end, I read this book in a day, because I was utterly immersed in Barr’s illuminating, understated prose.
You Will Be Safe Here shines a light on a period of history that is part of the so-called British Empire’s shame and which should be more widely known. It does not shy away from squaring up to the huge difficulties created by the birth of the post-apartheid South African generation.
What Barr achieves is a way to tell these stories and make them empathetic and very personal. His recounting is vivid, but it is also sensitive and hugely affecting. It would be hard not to feel absolutely caught up in Willem’s world; to feel how desperately he wanted to be loved and how terribly he was treated.
Verdict: I am so glad I read this book. It is heart-wrenching, enlightening and utterly gripping. You Will Be Safe Here is an intelligent, compassionate and really beautifully written piece of literary fiction that belongs on every bookshelf. It is unquestionably one of my books of the year.
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. He lives in Brighton.