First of all, there is a bit of a backstory to how I ended up reading this book this month, and since, to misquote Lesley Gore, it’s my blog, and I’ll share if I want to (share if I want to), do please indulge me. In terms of obtaining my physical copy of the book, it was a perfect example of everything I love about Bookish Twitter. I’ve only been active on Twitter for a few months, despite signing up 5 years ago (it seems I signed up and then forgot about it, which may have had something to do with the two small humans who have joined us in the meantime), and it has been a joyous revelation of tribe-finding. Honestly, I love it. And so, briefly: as part of the Stay At Home Litfest, the wonderful @writerlynds ran a competition for a ‘tweet story’, I was one of the winners, and the prize was a book of my choosing. You Will Be Safe Here had been on my radar for a while, and a brilliant review by Ellie (Number 1!) @ReadtoRamble sealed the deal.
I promise I will get to the actual book in a second; I just want to share why this book attracted me. I spent part of my childhood in Namibia, and we visited South Africa often as a family, both from Namibia and for many years after we left. That part of the world means a lot to me. My own novel-in-progress is set in southern Africa. When I was at university, I had the option to study a module on commonwealth and post colonial literature, and, thanks to a wonderfully supportive tutor, I was able to explore some brilliant South African writers in quite a lot of depth. My essays for him were always at least three times the prescribed length: he wrote on one of them: “I see what you mean about having been ‘carried away’!” but he was kind enough to assure me that the content justified the length. The months I spent reading writers such as J.M. Coetzee, Nadine Gordimer, Zakes Mda, Njabulo Ndebele, Andre Brink, Damon Galgut and others represented the first time I had felt totally free to explore my own interests academically, and it was very important to me. So Barr’s book (to cut an overly-long story not terribly short) was not a random choice by any means. Its South African setting made it a must read for me.
You Will Be Safe Here is a beautiful and powerful book. It opens with teenage Willem being taken from his home in Johannesburg to New Dawn Safari Camp by his mother and her boyfriend, a place where they ‘make men out of boys’. After this brief prologue, we are plunged into the past, back to 1901, through the diary of Sarah van der Watt, a Boer farmer’s wife whose husband is fighting the British and who finds herself and her young son taken to the concentration camp at Bloemfontein as part of the British ‘Scorched Earth’ policy during the Second Boer War. During the first half of the novel, Sarah’s gripping story details life in the camp with all its horrors and contradictions – the squalid conditions, the expectation of gratitude towards the British officers, the changing allegiance of the black servants, who realise that for survival they need to be on side with the British. There is an awful lot going on here, and Barr handles it with a delicate, almost poetic touch, never losing sight of the personal stakes. I was fully immersed in the world that the author creates – the use of sensual detail is exquisite, and his metaphors are visceral and surprising. I would have read an entire novel of Sarah’s first person narration quite happily, but Barr has even more spectacular designs with this novel.
From 1901, we jump towards the 21st century in Part Two, pausing to take in key moments from the lives of Willem’s grandmother, Rayna, his mother, Irma and from Willem’s early childhood. Rayna is a fascinating character, a woman who lives on the verge of being an outcast due to having two children by two different men, but whose tenacious survival instinct sees her through. Irma is less sympathetic, particularly as her relationship with Willem grows more fractious, but she is equally complex and intriguing. One of the many things which is extremely well done in this novel is the careful handling of the attitudes of the Afrikaner characters not only towards race (Barr refuses to fall into the trap of giving his older characters more pleasingly enlightened opinions than is realistic – the tangled issue of racism cannot be ignored so easily) but also towards language (Afrikaans vs English), homosexuality, and ideas of masculinity. When Rayna expresses concern over Willem’s ‘softness’, it is clearly a genuine worry, and when we see the repercussions of being regarded as a ‘moffie’ by his peers, this concern seems justified. Irma’s decision to send Willem to New Dawn seems callous, and certainly when the true goings-on at the camp come to light, it is hard not to feel fury towards Willem’s mother, but there is the question of how much we can hold her responsible for responding to the reality of the society they live in. I still haven’t come to a firm conclusion on this one – like all the best books, You Will Be Safe Here will have me pondering such questions for a long time to come.
Again, I would have read a whole novel in the more contemporary Johannesburg setting and thought it quite brilliant, but what Barr achieves with his dual narrative is something absolutely extraordinary. I am probably going to get a bit passionate here, so do excuse me. Literature which shines a light on the dark corners of history seems to me to be absolutely crucial. At school I studied history and learnt about the Tudors and the Nazis on repeat, but it wasn’t until I studied South African literature and other post colonial literature that I started to get any kind of understanding of just how brutal my own country’s recent past had been; the utter devastation of British colonialism came as a shock. And it was fiction that brought it home to me, so to speak. When people dismiss fiction as escapism, I take strong issue with that: I have no doubt that I would know far less about the world without literature, and literature always shows me how much more there is to learn. Damian Barr’s book is essential reading: it is brave, beautiful, gripping and so intelligent about the ripples that reverberate out from history into our present. I cannot recommend it highly enough, and I am sure I will be rereading this book.
You Will Be Safe Here is published by Bloomsbury and is out in paperback now.