It’s especially exciting as a reader when I start a novel and immediately feel engrossed by the story. This is a difficult thing to accomplish because it’s not just the content that needs to grip me but the style and tone of the narrative have to confidently guide me into the fictional world being presented. But I did feel wholly inside the story of “You Will Be Safe Here” by Damian Barr starting with the prologue where a teenage boy named Willem is forcibly taken by his parents to a sinister institution in 2010 and this feeling continued into the first chapter when a woman named Sarah describes her fear at the sight of distant smoke in 1901 as she knows this means military forces are nearing her farm.
So begin the stories of two different South African individuals at opposite ends of a century. This immersive novel explores the egregious fact of British-run concentration camps during The Second Boer War and camps in the present day designed to toughen up white young South African men who are deemed too effeminate or soft. These institutions are prisons that go by different names because they are purportedly for their inhabitants’ safety and improvement, but they’re really a slow form of torture. Through their pernicious practices we see warring ideologies about what makes the South African national identity and the unfortunate individuals who are the casualties of this political battle. It’s a heartrending tale, but it’s filled with so many beautifully realized moments that I didn’t want to look away and could relate to these characters’ stories (even though they are far different from my own life.)
A largely unknown truth this novel presents is the history of how the British operated concentration camps in South Africa from 1900-1902. Most people (including me) think of concentration camps as a Nazi invention during WWII, but prior to that they were implemented during the Second Boer War as a British military strategy to break up guerrilla campaigns. Civilian homes were destroyed and the inhabitants were herded into these poorly run camps to prevent the Boers resupplying from a home base. Thousands of civilians died in these overcrowded camps – mostly because of malnourishment and disease. This was shocking to discover and the story vividly brings us into the reality of what it was like to be interred in one of these camps. Though they weren’t designed as death camps that’s what they became for many. The novel movingly shows that there was cruelty but also moments of human kindness, friendship and a complex community spirit which arose in the face of adversity.
Being immersed in this history, it was difficult to see how Barr would create a bridge between this tale from the past and the one set in the near-present day. But the way he connects the two is gracefully done as we recognize characters between the two sections and see how the politics of the past can still be felt today. The thing which really drew me to Willem’s character is his bookish nature as he prefers spending time in the library at school rather than playing sports. Stories present an escape from his present where he’s ruthlessly bullied and ostracised. But what I most admire about the way the author handles Willem’s character and his storyline is that he’s not shown to have any particular sexuality though he’s labelled by his father and other boys as a “moffie”. Whether he’s still uncertain about his sexuality or keeps it private isn’t a concern for the reader and this better highlights how the issue is really the standards of masculinity all boys in this environment are being held to. Equally, a friendship Willem develops with another boy is delicately and complexly handled when it could have so easily become a cliché in the hands of a less talented writer.
This novel came with a huge amount of expectation. Not only was Damian Barr’s first book a compassionate and insightful memoir about growing up in the time of Thatcher. But he also regularly hosts the most impressive and glitziest literary salon in London where the guests he interviews include some of the best and most famous writers of today. Interacting with such literary greats puts a lot of pressure on this host to create a first novel that's really something special, but the result is so original, impactful and mesmerising to read that it's a real triumph. I've been lucky enough to get to know Damian a bit over the years and I always feel a lot of anxiety reading something by a writer I know because if I don't enjoy it I need to awkwardly explain to them I don't think it's their best (or pretend I've not found time to read it.) So I was thrilled to discover what a genuine joy it was reading this story and what an impressive, finely researched, artfully constructed novel it is! It's really made me rethink how I look at history – the many ways victorious nations conveniently forget their failings and crimes when teaching world history. I also felt such a connection to the characters that they're going to linger in my imagination for a long time.