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.
This is a book I have had on my TBR for a long time so I am delighted to finally have read it and be reviewing it for the blog tour today. My thanks to Anne Cater for inviting me to take part and to the publisher for my copy of the book which I have reviewed honestly and impartially.
This book is incredibly intense, moving, powerful, eye-opening and heartbreaking. It is a book set across multiple timelines and told by multiple voices, and at first it seems like the threads are unconnected, but at the end, all becomes clear and it is a fascinating, if difficult exploration of the history of a troubled country.
The book opens with the arrival of a teenage boy at a ‘safari camp’ in the veldt near Blomfontein, then immediately circles back to the experiences of a Boer farmer’s wife at the height of the second Boer War in 1901, as told through her diary entries. This historical part of the book is eye-opening and disturbing. This is a part of history that I did not know much about and, having read this, I am not remotely surprised that this is a part of British history that is not taught in our schools. It is a shameful thing to have to read about, and the writing here describes the suffering of the Boer women and children so vividly that it is extremely upsetting, but important and necessary, and you will come away from the experience with your perception altered.
The rest of the book follows the lives of one family from the 70s through to modern day as their history is told to the birth of Willem, the main protagonist of the modern part of the book, and the reasons he ends up in the ‘safari camp,’ where the writer draws disturbing parallels between the concentration camps used by the British in the Boer War and the way these misfit boys are treated in the modern day. You would believe this is an exaggerated story save for the fact that the book was inspired by the death of a real boy. The fact that these camps exist in modern South Africa is troubling.
Reading this book is extremely poignant in the modern era. The book explores the ongoing racial tensions in South Africa and the attitude of a section of the white population that believe a reckoning is coming for the historical wrongs done to them. This harking back to the past and a time that was perceived to be better than the modern day, is a scourge on our society and a flimsy camouflage for ingrained racism, intolerance and bigotry that fuels so much that is wrong in the modern world. This book is so powerful in the way it makes the reader think about these issues and will shake and complacencies you may have about how pure our history is as a country.
This is not an easy or comfortable read, but it is an important and thought-provoking book that I would highly recommend to anyone interested in history and social politics.
You Will Be Safe Here is out now and you can buy a copy here.
Please make sure you check out the rest of the fabulous blogs taking part in the tour:
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.
Connect with Damian:
Facebook: Mr Damian Barr