You Will Be Safe Here

If so, wow, I feel like we are now connected by the shared experience.

I’m South African, so this multigenerational, intricately South African story which spans multiple political time periods, written by a non-South African, had me concerned about authenticity. Those fears were totally unfounded. This is a deftly written piece of historical fiction which starts in the Boer War and finishes in modern day South Africa.

It starts in a diary format, from a mother in one of the concentration camps in which British soldiers imprisoned women and children during the war – more people died in those camps than soldiers on the field. This woman and her child’s story is darkly connected to the fate of a contemporary young boy called Willem, timid and “weird” in the eyes of his peers and family, who send him to a camp called New Dawn, a ranger camp which claims to make “men out of boys”. His experience is a re-imagining of the true story of Raymond Buys, a teenager who was murdered in 2011 at a similar camp, run by the Afrikaans Resistance Movement (AWB), a far-right political party dedicated to secessionist Afrikaner nationalism.

So, basically: this book is rife with complex histories and sociological, cultural potholes for Damian Barr to tumble into and yet through immaculate research, he’s sidestepped every one, with only tiny errors here and there which I’m sure I only clocked because I’m South African. Despite how much history is covered, it reads lightly and is never lacking in raw humanity, or overbearing with the research.

All the characters are depicted with sensitivity and empathy which prevails longer than the immediate feeling of having been shaken and emptied out on finishing. There’s so much to unpack, almost sentence by sentence, and I think everyone should read it, so I’ll leave it there. Please get in touch if you want to chat about it more – I’m bursting to just talk and talk and talk to someone about it!

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