You Will Be Safe Here
Damian Barr’s first novel, You Will Be Safe Here, grips you by the throat from its ominous prologue to its shattering conclusion. Set in South Africa, it weaves together two historically disparate narratives united not only by geography.
The first, which opens in 1901, is the diary of Afrikaner Sarah van der Watt, whose husband is off fighting the British for the land the Boers (“farmers” in Afrikaans) believed was granted to them by God. The British burn down the resisters’ homes and dispatch their families to overcrowded camps where disease is rife, food is scarce and abuse is constant. They send Sarah and her son to one such camp. Although there is an excess of wittering exposition at the start of Sarah’s diary – supposedly written for her absent husband but with a few too many passages detailing what he surely already knows – this is ultimately a minor flaw.
In the second narrative, we meet Willem, a sensitive, introverted boy born to a single Afrikaner mother, Irma, in 1994, the year Mandela was elected president of South Africa. His mother hooks up with a security guard named Jan, who holds Willem and his “moffie” (“poofter”) ways in contempt. When Willem is 16, Jan persuades Irma to send her son to New Dawn, a camp run by a man who calls himself the General. It supposedly straightens out troubled boys and trains them to be wildlife rangers. The General turns out to be a far-right white Afrikaner nationalist who is raising an army for the next war, that of white against black. He is also a sadistic, violent homophobe.
Barr, the British author of an award-winning memoir of coming out, based the story of Willem and his best friend at New Dawn on the horrific death of a 15-year-old boy in 2011 at a similar camp. In the course of his research, Barr realised the Boer Wars and the British-run concentration camps had planted the seeds of South Africa’s far-right movement, and indeed apartheid itself. The first black African character we meet is a servant, and the final one is a judge: the metaphor is artful and clear.
Barr paints a graphic, compelling picture of a world founded on white entitlement, machismo, racism and homophobia. The novel’s story resonates far beyond South Africa. No one is safe here.
Bloomsbury, 352pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 29, 2019 as "Damian Barr, You Will Be Safe Here". Subscribe here.