Review: You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

You Will Be Safe Here is the first fictional novel by Damian Barr.

It’s October 2010 and Willem Brandt is being dropped off at New Dawn Training Camp with a backpack full of expensive items to help him survive his time there. From khaki trousers and boots, to mess tins and a hunting knife, the list was comprehensive, suggesting to the recipient that this would be quite an adventure. This camp is quite something. They boast about making boys into men and giving them the skills to survive which many parents feel valuable now that there is no conscription for National Service. This is a training camp that takes away modern comforts, a place where no phones are allowed and speaking Afrikaans is a must. The English language is completely prohibited.

This training camp didn’t come cheap of course but it seems Willem’s soon-to-be stepfather, Jan, is determined to impress Irma, Willem’s mother, even if it does cost him a small fortune. After all, he is sending away the one thing that Irma idolizes which means he will get her all to himself.

Before this story truly gets underway though we are then introduced to Mrs. Sarah van der Watt of Mulberry Farm in Ventersburg. The year is 1901 and she is concerned that her farm will be taken from her by the English unless Samuel can return victorious but from where we are unsure.

“I ‘ve never met an English man, except in novels. There’s strangely little to do now but wait.

I’ m getting so carried away I nearly forgot dinner – we eat like Kings now! The more we eat, the less we leave for the Khakis.”

I can only assume by this statement that she is talking about the British Army who wears khaki and because of the date, 1901, that this part of the story is set during the Second Boer War.

The British finally arrive on her farm to either take whatever they want or destroy what is left. Leaving not a trace of the farm behind, Mrs. Sarah van der Watt and her son Frederick are transported from their home to Bloemfontein concentration camp, although at the time of their arrival it was designated as a refugee camp to all those it was about to house.

“Our camp – there are others – had 250 tents. The official limit is supposedly fifteen per tent. So, there are at least 3,000 of us. A week ago, we were all farmers. Now there are no farms. We are ‘refugees’.”

Refugees guarded by soldiers who carry guns and where fences are covered in wire with lookout towers strategically placed to keep an eye on the goings-on below. It sounds distinctively more like a prison with so many rules that must never be broken. Welcome to the Prison Camps of the Boer Wars, something the British should be extremely embarrassed about.

We then flash forward again, this time to Johannesburg during 1976.

Rayna is part of the privileged white community in Johannesburg and through her eye’s we begin to realise what living in this country would be like for both English immigrates and natives trying to live side by side, although there is a clear divide where the white community feels completely superior.

Pregnant after being raped with her first child, she marries young and then losses her parents in a fatal car crash. Her husband then uses the excuse to run off to the mines leaving her to fend for herself and her young son. After several months of feeling sorry for herself, she finally realises that she needs to become the sole breadwinner and secures a job at Africa’s largest train station.

It is during her time here that she meets Johannes, and soon a friendship followed by an affair follows. To begin with, everything is fantastic. They meet each week at the same hotel, forgetting about their other commitments to enjoy each other’s company. It is only once Rayna reveals she is pregnant that things start to deteriorate. So now Rayna is on her own once again but with not one but two children, Piet and Irma, to look after.

Finally, in 1993, we are reintroduced to a younger Irma. This time she is just 16 and pregnant with Willem.  It is through her story that we are forced to face the reality of life just as the South African Apartheid was drawing to a close.

It is a country that clearly has hopes of a better future but is that how things actually turn out? Do the characters in this novel really end up better off, and how do the lives of Samuel and Sarah van der Watt link to those of Rayna, Irma, and Willem?

You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr

My Thoughts on You Will Be Safe Here

Reading this beautifully crafted prose by Damian has only highlighted by naivety to what has both happened and to some extend is still happening across the world. I feel ashamed that, until reading this, I was not actually aware that the British created these forced ‘refugee’ prison camps during the Boer Wars. This is part of my history, just like the actions of the British during the World Wars, but we are not taught about these times during our school years – perhaps because they can hardly be called our glory years.

It is also eye-opening to discover exactly how people were, and potentially still are, treated because of their race. I could never imagine having a discussion with people, highlighting that things have progressed slightly because the queues in the supermarkets are now mixed-race whereas before they would have been forced to form separate lines. These are discussions happening during my lifetime, not some distance time previously, which just makes me ashamed of the human population in general.

To think that in South Africa mixed-race marriages were prohibited until the mid-1980’s that the first couple were able to legally marry is just mind-boggling and something I am still reflecting on after reading Damian’s book.

One of the main reasons for this story comes though from the extensive research Damian has done following the murder of Raymond Buys. A young lad sent to a training camp, similar to the one Willem was forced to attend, designed to make boys into men. A camp created to beat the ‘gay’ out of people, the stupidity out of those with learning difficulties and kill off all the natural adolescent teenage boy angst turning boys from petulant children into young adults that would be seen as respectable. In truth, it sounds like nothing more than a modern-day concentration camp.

It’s not very often I feel such strong emotions when reading a book as I did with this one.  Parts of this story are written with such raw emotion, I felt it in every torturous paragraph. I wanted to scream out for the pain and suffering that was being inflicted upon others; at times even putting the book down for fear of getting far too emotionally involved.

To say my eyes have been opened is an understatement. You Will Be Safe Here is so much more than a novel spreading across several decades, it is an education that will stay with me long after finishing that final chapter.

Have you read You Will Be Safe Here? Have you read any of Damian Barr’s other work?

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You Will Be Safe Here is the first fictional novel by Damian Barr, host of The Literary Salon. You can read the full review via @tbookjunkie

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