Damian Barr explains the upsetting genesis of his impressive debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, in his acknowledgements:
This story began with a picture of a boy in a newspaper. That boy was Raymond Buys and he’d been killed in a camp not unlike New Dawn. He was just 15. This book is dedicated to him...
In this eye-opening and meticulously researched novel (which comes six years after Barr’s memoir Maggie & Me), the author argues that to understand South Africa’s complicated and violent current political situation — a situation that led to the death of Raymond Buys — we have to look to its past, and the role played by the British in it.
In the Second Boer War, farmer’s wife Sarah van der Watt is taken, along with her six-year-old son, to Bloemfontein, one of the largest British internment camps, where they are promised safety, but conditions are harsh, and the internees ruled by terror.... The research is worn lightly and the two narratives neatly brought together in this brave, compassionate and beautifully written novel.
Like the hands of nervous lovers on the bus home, the two parts of the book touch discretely and occasionally. For the most part, the stitching is more thematic – the struggles of single-motherhood, the effects of war, or near-war, on individual lives – rather than incidental. Race slinks relentlessly throughout, so it’s fortunate Barr handles it confidently. In many small ways, he proves the triumph of systematic racism is confirmed, secured, perpetuated when it gets control of the unthinking interactions between people. And yet Barr is sophisticated enough to know this triumph can never be total, that moments of tenderness and courtesy can exist alongside something fundamentally wrong, like a brightly coloured bird perched on a branch of a fire-blackened tree.
Of the many different emotions a novel can inspire in its readers, anger is rarely one of them, but I’d challenge anyone to come away from You Will Be Safe Here in a state of calm. 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... You Will Be Safe Here is a very fine novel, its title offered to Sarah when she first arrives at the concentration camp and an obvious statement of irony, for both camps in the books, and the cities outside those camps, are enclosed spaces, surrounded by walls and barbed wire, where no one can ever be truly safe. Barr connects the first section to the rest of the book in two very subtle and quiet moments that gave this reader a satisfying shiver down the spine. It’s the work of someone who understands his subject and employs calm, efficient prose to leave the reader feeling stunned by the cruelty and barbarism human beings routinely show each other.
Barr is not the first novelist to evoke the horror of concentration camps – the train journey, the outbreaks of typhoid and reign of terror all seem harrowingly familiar – but it is rare to show such deprivation suffered under British jurisdiction. Bloemfontein kept more than 3,000 internees in barely humane conditions: “Our tent,” Sarah notes, “is like the lung of an ailing sheep.”... It’s quite a leap from North Lanarkshire to South Africa in the early 20th century; but in a continuation of the style developed through his memoir, Barr’s first novel is distinguished by its compassion, its wisdom and its remarkable sense of poetry.
Clearly, this is not going to end happily. The book is sensitively done, but it is dubious if the two halves add up to a great revelation about South African history, and the suggestion that British treatment of white Boers was a cause of apartheid isn’t convincing.
The theme — that brutality fathers brutality — is not strong or novel enough to supply the missing cohesion. However, Barr is a natural storyteller, and each distinct part of the book is moving. Sarah’s experience at the hands of the British is sad and shaming, and her voice feels authentic. Barr is also tender towards his less attractive characters, such as the boorish Jan, who feels displaced in a new world. The book’s triumph, however, is Willem, and Barr’s portrait of a boy at odds with his universe.