You Will be Safe Here, by Damian Barr, 2019

Title: You Will be Safe Here

Author: Damian Barr

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Genre: Historical fiction

Format: Advanced Reading Copy

Language: Language

No. of pages: 352

Recommended for: All ages

Synopsis:

An extraordinary debut that explores legacies of abuse, redemption, and the strength of the human spirit–from the Boer Wars in South Africa to brutal wilderness camps for teenage boys.

South Africa, 1901. It is the height of the second Boer War. Sarah van der Watt and her six-year-old son Fred are forced from their home on Mulberry Farm. As the polite invaders welcome them to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp they promise Sarah and Fred that they will be safe there.

2014. Sixteen-year-old Willem is an outsider. Hoping he will become the man she wants him to be, his Ma and her boyfriend force Willem to attend the New Dawn Safari Training Camp where they are proud to make men out of boys. They promise that he will be safe there.

You Will Be Safe Here is a powerful and urgent novel of two connected South African stories. Inspired by real events, it uncovers a hidden colonial history, reveals a dark contemporary secret, and explores the legacy of violence and our will to survive. 

My review:

I received a review copy for the publishers in return for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.

I absolutely loved reading YOU WILL BE SAFE HERE. This is a poignant story that really touched my heart and I have changed after reading it. There are 4 parts in the story.

The first part is written in an epistolary format – in the form of a diary. The ton of Sarah van der Watt is so tragic. I found – not overtly so, but in its undercurrent – I could feel it as I read – Sarah’s knowledge that the need of her world as she knew it, was near. Things would greatly change and it is as if she is deliberately and often times forcefully trying to be cheerful – why not enjoy the last few days before all hell breaks loose?

Some lines I liked were –

“There is strangely little to do now but wait.”

During this period of the second Boer War, the Kaffirs were freed by the English. The resulting chaos was a great scar on the lives of so many people – both whites and blacks. I was also pleasantly surprised by the resilience of the people – specifically Sarah van der Watt and basically everyone else.  It also talks about the feminine issues – both social, and historical – the suppression of women and the masculine power play over them, their objectification, etc.  I also loved that Samuel, the husband had been such a supportive husband to Sarah, as we learn from the diary entries. Later on, the entries make you cry – just reading of the utter inhuman situations that they, along with so many other people were subjected to. The flashback method was also great and gives great depth to the story.

One thing that I really enjoyed was the inclusion of the literary references. It made the text very relatable to the reader, as it surely did for me! 

Throughout all the different parts, the Southern Cross is a recurring motif. I interpreted it as an objective correlative for the concepts of hope and strength that it bestowed on the different characters. The use of regional words at certain places give a certain authenticity to the text and a sense of reality.

In part 2, Willem says “They wouldn’t understand, they never understand” which I think resonates among so many teenagers, when thinking of adults and authority figures.

One of the major themes that I saw throughout Part 2 is that of toxic masculinity. For instance, seeing Willem cry in desperation once, Jan had turned away – after all, boys do not cry. We also see domestic abuse scenario in this part.

Later, when Willem is at the camp and Rayna misses him. She understands that at the camp he would be forced to do what they have wanted him to do always – things that other boys do generally. “It’s these markers of his willingness to try that break her heart”.

 I really loved Rayna’s character. She is the epitome of an independent and hardworking woman. When Irma accuses her saying she could never “keep a man” Rayna says, “I never needed one… Maybe I wanted one, sometimes but I never needed one. Not like you” and that is such a powerful sentiment. Rayna is an inspiring woman just as Sarah.

Verdict:

This is one of the best books I have read in my life, let alone in 2019. I rate it a 5/5 stars and will definitely be picking it up again.

About the author:

‘Maggie & Me’ is my memoir and ‘You Will Be Safe Here’ is my first novel (out in April 2019). You can follow me on twitter @damian_barr and insta @mrdamianbarr. I host my own Literary Salon at the Savoy: www.theliterarysalon.co.uk

‘Maggie & Me’ is my memoir of surviving small-town Scotland in the Thatcher years. It won Sunday Times Memoir of the Year: “Full to the brim with poignancy, humour, brutality and energetic and sometimes shimmering prose, the book confounds one’s assumptions about those years and drenches the whole era in an emotionally charged comic grandeur. It is hugely affecting.” BBC Radio 4 made it a Book of the Week. Following Jeanette Winterson in 2012, Stonewall named me Writer of the Year 2013.

I host my own Literary Salon at the Savoy. Guests include: Jojo Moyes, Bret Easton Ellis, John Waters, Mary Beard, James Frey, David Nicholls, Colm Toibin, Taiye Selasi, Susan Calman, David Mitchell and Rose McGowan. Do enjoy our podcast!

Commended as Columnist of the Year, I’ve also been a journalist for over a decade writing mostly for The Times but also the Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Guardian, Evening Standard and Granta. I’m currently a columnist for the Big Issue and High Life. My first book, based on a Times column, was published by Hodder in 2005. ‘Get It Together: A Guide to Surviving Your Quarterlife Crisis’. I’ve also co-written two plays for Radio 4 and appeared on PM, Midweek, Broadcasting House and Today as well as The Verb and presented on Front Row. I live in Brighton with my partner and our intensely demanding chickens.

About the reviewer:

Nayanika Saikia, is one of the foremost book reviewers from the North-east and Assam, and is also an admin for the official India bookstagram page on Instagram. She publishes her own reviews and recommendations for poetry, fiction, non-fiction etc. on her bookstagram account @pretty_little_bibliophile which won the NorthEast Creator Awards 2018, as well as in daily newspapers, online magazines etc.  She can be contacted at nayanikasaikia98@gmail.com .

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