British writer and journalist Damian Barr’s first novel takes in over a hundred years of South African history, beginning with the Boer War, where a “scorched earth” policy led to those unwilling to sign a pledge of allegiance to the British Crown being evicted from their homes and into internment camps. For the first section of the novel we follow Mrs Van Der Witt and her young son Fred through diary entries written in the camp intended for her husband, who is off fighting the English in 1901.
A prologue introduces us to a modern camp which is picked up on again in the second narrative thread when teenager Willem’s parents send him to a conversion camp to make a man out of him. The two narratives are linked through location and a school history lesson visit to the turn of the century site.
This is a powerful and chilling read. The history of South Africa is complex but by touching on these two points in time Barr manages to convey an epic sweep and involves the reader through strong characterisation and an unpredictable and occasionally brutal plot.
I did find that the narrative structure made the novel feel a little unresolved at times and despite some connections the early narrative felt somewhat distant from the contemporary one. I think running the two strands a little more side by side could have been more powerful improved the flow.
Minor quibbles, however, for a very strong debut novel written with what I can best describe as a calm powerfulness which will stay with the reader for a considerable time. With so many discussion points this would be an ideal reading group choice.
Phil Ramage 4/5
You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr
Bloomsbury Publishing 9781408886083 hbk Apr 2019