The stunning and shocking debut novel from the award-winning author of Maggie & Me. Set in South Africa You Will Be Safe Here explores legacies of abuse, redemption and the strength of the human spirit 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.
Such a powerful visceral book it totally blew me away. I kept wondering how on earth such a young man could write a book like this encompassing the history of South Africa in the previous century with all of its complexities, cruelties and problems.
I can remember the days of apartheid as viewed from the UK at that period in time when we watched it on our TV screens, or read about it in our newspapers of the time, appalled that it was happening at all. I can remember Nelson Mandela being freed and other parts of South African history included in this book.
The book is written in three periods of South African history – 1901, 1976 and 2010. Dually narrated with several different voices throughout.
The first part in 1901 was at the time of the Second Boer war. Incidentally soldier ancestors of mine were career soldiers and served through both Boer wars (and the First World war) but I had no idea that internment camps for the families of Boer fighters even existed during that time period. That area of my military family history, despite the soldiers being decorated for actions, is surprisingly light.
The part with the internment at Bloemfontein Concentration Camp of Sarah Watts and her son Fred after the ‘scorched earth’ burning of their farm was such a powerful, horrifying read. The entreaty of ‘You Will Be Safe Here’ given by British soldiers to the interned Boer families was so blatantly untrue that the cruelty of gross neglect by their British captors that lead to the deaths of many thousands was both horrifying and enlightening to read about.
We don’t initially discover how Sarah’s story pans out because we’re then taken to 1976 and then onto the conclusion in 2010
This part of the book takes the reader through other periods of change in the history of South Africa. During this part we discover the fate of Sarah Watts and her family.
The book ends with the horrendous experiences of a young man called Willem in the New Dawn Safari Training Camp, a right wing paramilitary camp to which the young man has been sent to ‘make a man of him’ by his stepfather.
Excellently written and researched with a massive list of resources (listed in end pages) used in the writing of this book.
I really must read more about this shameful time in our history. I’ve realised how little I know about it. No wonder we’re not taught about such events in school history in the UK
Now to read Damian Barr’s memoir of growing up in Scotland Maggie and Me
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
I’m a writer, journalist and host of my own Literary Salon. I host The Big Scottish Book Club for BBC Scotland and BBC iPlayer. You can find out more about me, my books and my chickens at www.damianbarr.com and my Salon at www.theliterarysalon.co.uk You can follow me on twitter @damian_barr and insta @mrdamianbarr.
My first novel is ‘You Will Be Safe Here’ – a Guardian, Observer and Financial Times pick for 2019 and a BBC Radio 4 Book at Bedtime. The Times calls it ‘searing’. John Boyne, in the Irish Times, says: ‘It tells a story so powerful and upsetting that it’s a useful reminder of how fiction can illuminate the indignities visited upon those the world has mistreated and then forgotten.’
‘Maggie & Me’ is my story 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. 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, John Waters, Polly Samson, James Frey, David Nicholls, Colm Toibin, Taiye Selasi, Alex Preston, David Mitchell and Naomi Alderman. I host events with the British Council, Hay, the BBC National Short Story Award and the Booker. Tickets and podcast on http://www.theliterarysalon.co.uk
Commended as Columnist of the Year, I’ve been a journalist for fifteen years writing mostly for The Times but also the Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Guardian, Evening Standard and Granta. Formerly Literary Editor of Soho House, I’m currently a columnist for High Life.
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 as a presenter on Front Row. I’m a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.
I live in Brighton with my partner and our intensely demanding chickens.
Book Review by Caryl – Mrs Bloggs’ Books