“You will be safe here” – a phrase which, while it offers so much, is often heavy with false hope and littered with absent promises. It is entirely understandable why Damian Barr decided to title his emotionally charged first novel this, the words first being told to a diarist who is documenting her tremendous ordeal in Boer War concentration camp. Barr’s novel is about that hope, or lack thereof, and the brutality of just what humans can inflict upon one another. It is about connections, those which bind us and the petty differences that set us apart. It is about living with the consequences of society’s actions, and about understanding history, learning about the role our ancestors had to play in such misery.
Barr’s novel begins during the Second Boer War, a topic which many who have endured a British education will know very little about. Embarrassingly, my own historic knowledge of Southern Africa is limited to watching the grainy 1964 film Zulu, which was (for some reason) often wheeled out during my middle-school history lessons. Barr, seemingly recognising this need for a deeper understanding about South Africa’s history, chooses to start with his book with the moving diary of Sarah van der Watt. Sarah has been imprisoned – many are reluctant to call it this, but ultimately, that is what has occurred – in a concentration camp along with her young son, Fred. Again, concentration camp is a word that, due to our narrow history lessons, we often associate with a later time in history, rarely considering their devastating impact on those who lived many years beforehand. Sarah’s diary makes us sit up and listen. Just for a moment we forget that it’s not real, that this isn’t some beautifully uncovered piece of historical literature, filled with meaning, lost hope, words that she gradually realises will never reach the husband she believes she has lost. Barr’s greatest accomplishment in this wonderful novel is the diary of Sarah, and the way that he brings her existence in the camp to life. We taste the mouldy meat with her, we shudder at the bugs which are squeezing their way into her tiny tent. We shed a tear when her son is ripped from her arms. It’s not effortless writing – you can feel the challenge of every page, every sentence, that Barr has produced – but that only makes it all the more meaningful. As Sarah’s books float calmly in the wind when her house burns down around them, we understand just how fleeting and fragile stories can be. Stories like Sarah’s, which sadly rarely get to be told.
The motif of insects is something that occurs throughout the novel, being more present in the diary section, but running right to the end and with our other main character, Willem. We are briefly introduced to Willem in the prologue, and the image of this teenager being abandoned at a mystery gate sticks with us until he returns in the final section. Readers of Maggie and Me have noted that the sense of belonging Willem struggles with in You Will Be Safe Here is an emotion that Barr captures well. For me, the pairing of this feeling with the insect motif was a brilliant and effective decision. In the camp, bugs are a distraction, a presence that, while annoying, are still described in a moving sense of togetherness. Fast-forward years later to Willem, a teenage boy who comes under constant jibes of ‘moffie’ (Afrikaans slang for homosexual), and his joy surrounding insects is delicate and fitting with his personality. He wants to rescue everything, give everything its proper name, and creates something from this easily discarded world.
Of course, Barr could not have written an accurate fictional novel about South Africa without including some political discourse. The middle sections – that of Rayna and Irma, Willems grandmother and mother, respectfully – highlight the struggles endured during a particularly uncertain period. Willem himself was born on the day of the 1994 election, the first in which all races were allowed to take part and the year that Nelson Mandela was elected as the first black president. However, while the inclusion is there and the historical accuracies are of course important, Barr makes sure that it is the lived experiences of his characters that take centre-stage. Barr’s characters (for the most part) do not actively engage with the political happenings around them, just as today, most of us do not go out and campaign on the streets on a daily basis. They comment, they make judgement, they work around the decisions that are subsequently made. Does this make them weak? Or the novel not as significant as originally thought? Perhaps to some readers, who may have come seeking this kind of content. However, it is the stories behind the headlines that draw the reader in during You Will Be Safe Here– in a note from the author, Barr reveals the inspiration for this novel came from the heart-breaking murder of 15-year-old Raymond Buys, influencing his Willem Brandt character. He also goes into detail about the research and exploration that went into producing the novel and its characters, which can indeed be heavily felt throughout the pages.
This isn’t novel that starts off strong yet drifts off peacefully, as often is the case with many debuts. Instead, You Will Be Safe Here grows and changes as the reader progresses and is faced with new, yet entirely recognisable worlds. The two sections are noticeably separate, one being written in first person and the rest being told in third-person, but still maintaining that intimate insight and feel. However, this isn’t jarring or troublesome to read; the divided parts subtly caress and make reference to one another. As we journey through the chaos, connections begin to become clear and beautifully relevant.
The nod to astrology – in particular the hold the Southern Star has over the characters – is poignant and anchors the text, and in fact the characters, perfectly. While they wander, lost, questioning their belonging in this place they have called home all their lives, it is the clear that the night sky brings each of them comfort, overwhelming them with the gravitas of just what is out there.
Barr ends his novel in a spectacular way, by moving the viewpoint over to that of a modern-day judge in a courtroom, managing to give nothing away until the very last sentence. Once we close the novel, and supposedly everything has been ‘explained’ or has at least become somewhat clearer, the reader is left contemplating the actions of man himself, and whether or not much has really changed to this day.
You Will Be Safe Here is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.
Damian Barr is an award-winning writer and columnist. Maggie & Me, his memoir about comingof age and coming out in Thatcher’s Britain, was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and Sunday Times Memoir of the Year, and wonthe Paddy Power Political Books ‘Satire’ Award and Stonewall Writer of the YearAward. Damian writes columns for the BigIssue and High Life and oftenappears 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.
Reviewed by Mariah Feria
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