I came across this title by chance, as I was ( how surprising) wandering around The Red Wheelbarrow Bookstore (again). I love spending time here, helping Penelope out and learning about how the bookstore works. You Will Safe Here was among the ARCs she had received, standing quietly on its shelf, patiently waiting for me to pick it up, so that it could tear my heart apart and prompt me to write this review.
It is Damian Barr’s first novel. His first book “Maggie and Me” is a memoir I need to read.
Here is the blurb of the novel, as per the publisher’s website, my review follows.
South Africa, 1901, the height of the second Boer War. Sarah van der Watt and her son are taken from their farm by force to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp where, the English promise: they will be safe.
Johannesburg, 2010. Sixteen-year-old outsider Willem just wants to be left alone with his books and his dog. Worried he’s not turning out right, his ma and her boyfriend send him to New Dawn Safari Training Camp. Here they ‘make men out of boys’. Guaranteed.
You Will Be Safe Here is a deeply moving novel of connected parts. Inspired by real events, it uncovers a hidden colonial history and present-day darkness while exploring our capacity for cruelty and kindness.
After a short prologue taking place nowadays, Damian Barr takes us back to 1901 southern Africa, through the pages of Sarah van der Watt’s diary. She is a Boer, from the Orange Free state, mother of one, whose husband has left to join the fight against the British Invader. She lives under the imminent threat of being dispossessed of her home and land. Afraid and isolated, she finds comfort in talking to her absent husband through the pages of her journal. Her fragile reprieve is short lived, as English soldiers finally come to get her, with her son but without her servants, to a concentration camp. Follows an excruciating experience which narration is abruptly put to an end. We will learn more about her fate only much later in the novel. The story then picks up in Johannesburg more than 70 years later, with another family, Afrikaner as well, but going through different hardships. The two parts are connected, but this connection is slowly unveiled.
Throughout the novel, we follow the jolts of South-African history from a perspective I have not seen much explored before, in all its nuances.
The Boer war(s) is a historical episode I knew nothing about. Besides, the elements of the country’s recent history were all the more interesting, since I spent a few years in Johannesburg as a child, and remember mainly the expat bubble I lived in at the time. It is only as I grew older that I learned of the tensions that marred the country.
Here, racial tensions are elegantly evoked and family dynamics aptly dissected. We have a single mother, her mostly absent son, her daughter and her grand-children. The men that come in and out of their lives. Willem, whom we see grow, love, laugh and suffer, and whose story made my heart ache in so many ways.
“He subsides from crying to sleeping with no in-between, as only small boys can. She kisses his cheek, which he would let her do if he was awake — his affectionate nature one of the things she loves and fears the most.”
In this harrowing novel, Damian Barrs tells of untamed hatred and the litany of suffering they can bring. He tells of the corruptive power of soured grievances. He also shows how too often people chose to be blind, passive in the face of the ugly. He dissects ignorance, prejudices and their consequences. With a sharp pen, he relates the never-ending spiral of violence. But he also shares with us tales of love and resilience.
“She understands the old hate but not the new one. Everybody is angry now. You can’t build walls high enough.”
The message is strikingly brought to life by Barr’s incisive yet lyrical writing. His exploration of the dark spots of British-Afrikaner history is well researched but never feels like a history lesson. He narrates portions of life, draws vignettes of a family (and a country) story in such a clear, simple, yet moving manner. It creates a real intimacy with the protagonists. The cast is diverse in their flaws and aspirations. Some of them may seem too monstrous to be true. Yet, they ring true. They are. Because the despicable exists and blind rancor veils the eyes of many.
“They have fed their rage for four years until it’s filled her courtroom and spilled out into the land.”
It was edifying to read about how individuals can lock themselves in their idealized past, dreaming of the restauration of a hypothetical golden age, crushing many lives in their quest to regain their lost pride. But we also follow characters going through hard times in a changing world, that seek for redemption and fight for adaptation. The shifts in perspectives really help draw a nuanced picture, and understand the incomprehension that can build between communities, among families.
“When she started at the museum, there was no acknowledgement of the black camps. Now, thanks to her, there is whole display. A big of gratitude wouldn’t go amiss.”
In this novel, hatred takes many forms : blatant racism, uneasiness-born prejudices, cruel homophobia. But hatred is not the only culprit. Cowardice, subjection can be even more deadly.
In a story based in South Africa, exploring (among other subjects) the racial resentment that marks the country, I loved how the message was delicately handled. No heavy handed argument, no thunderous advocacy. But light and clean evocation, touches of humour. The simple tale of ordinary people taken into the spiral of History. Of normal people in their comfortable ignorance. Of young innocent, victims of the sickly pride of unstable adults.
“And now Reveille is sounding. The chain on the door is rattling. A new dawn is pushing under the door.”
Conclusion : An impressive debut novel. In a well controlled tone, never descending into pathos, Damian Barr exposes the human nature at its best and worst. I highly recommend.
“The stars on the ceiling above his bed begin to glow and as they grow brighter he soars through the sky, comforts himself with constellations: Orion’s Belt, the Pleiades and right over his head the Southern Cross and next to that a new star. It shines brighter than all the others and he reaches for it, reaches to stop it falling.”
You Will Be Safe Here, by Damian Barr
Out 4 April 2019.
Please note that all the quotes featured here are taken from a proof copy of the novel, and may be subject to change in the definitive version.