The cold begins to set in as you lie on your back floating on the night sky. It’s clear tonight and reflects like a mirror in the water. You feel yourself flying and can’t remember the last time you felt this free, this safe. You hope it never ends but can already hear the dogs barking and torches scanning the wood. Time to run, be defiant and be proud of what you believe in.
Today I am on the blog tour for You Will Be Safe Here (Published 2nd April 2020) By Damian Barr. A big thank you to the publishers Bloomsbury for my copy to review, always appreciated. And as always to the amazing Anne for the invite, thank you.
About The Author
Damian Barr is an award-winning writer and columnist. Maggie & Me, his memoir about coming of age and coming out in Thatcher’s Britain, was a BBC Radio 4 ‘Book of the Week’, Sunday Times ‘Memoir of the Year’ and won the Paddy Power Political Books ‘Satire’ Award and Stonewall Writer of the Year Award. Damian writes columns for the Big Issue and High Life and often appears on BBC Radio 4. He is creator and host of his own Literary Salon that premieres work from established and emerging writers. You Will Be Safe Here is his debut novel. Damian Barr lives in Brighton.
You Will Be Safe Here
A beautiful and heart-breaking story set in South Africa where two mothers – a century apart – must fight for their sons, unaware their fates are inextricably linked.
Orange Free State, 1901. At the height of the Boer War, Sarah van der Watt and her six-year-old son Fred can only watch as the British burn their farm. The polite invaders cart them off to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp promising you will be safe here.
Johannesburg, 2010. Sixteen-year-old Willem is an outsider who just wants to be left alone with his Harry Potter books and Britney, his beloved pug. Worried he’s turning out soft, his Ma and her new boyfriend send him to New Dawn Safari Camp, where they ‘make men out of boys.’ Guaranteed.
The red earth of the veldt keeps countless secrets whether beaten by the blistering sun or stretching out beneath starlit stillness. But no secret can stay buried forever.
I went into this open minded and unaware of the reality of the history that surrounds South Africa. And if I am honest, I was naïve to the events that took place decades ago. I had no idea, not a clue.
The narrative follows a number of characters, spread across an entire century at various points in history. We read the dairy of Sarah Van Der Watt and the poor conditions she suffered in a British concentration camp from 1901. We meet Rayna in 1976 In Johannesburg and discover she was raped at just sixteen years old. The reader jumps to 1993 were Irma, Rayna’s daughter is now pregnant with Willem who we also follow in the 2000s as he is sent off to New Dawn. A camp for turning boys into men. Barr connects and interlinks each narrative, everyone having a place and significance in the story. It’s powerful and leaves you shocked, at a loss for words. It’s unforgettable.
I felt helpless as I stood with Sarah and her six year old son Fred, watching the flames consume their farm house. I was too shocked to look away as the animals were slaughtered and their possessions were taken. It is brutal writing that punches you over and over in the gut as you realise that this isn’t fiction. These events are very real and happened. This was a traumatic time in South Africa that discriminated against race, identity and gender, with words such as Kaffir (raciest slur) being used frequently. Humanity demonstrating one of its lowest points. Barr makes you feel uncomfortable and uneasy at times, much like these women but you are compelled to read on as their strength pulls you together and holds your hand till the end.
Barr captures the raw emotion that these women were forced to carry like a noose around their neck. At any given moment one little slip would result in death. With their husbands away fighting and being told to sign and surrender there is little hope in a rescue. They are forced to wait with empty bellies as any meat they do get is laced with poison. The never ending whistles signalling deaths of mainly children echoing around them all day and night. Their basic rights stripped if deemed as an undesirable because of their husband’s position in the war. It’s hard hitting stuff dear reader.
Barr’s writing is gritty and rough displaying the real nature of the times of these events. The Boer war saw 28,000 Boer women and children killed in British concentration camps. There was more civilians dead than soldiers. Barr reflects on how the Boer Wars can be seen as the root of all their present-day difficulties. He makes sure that it isn’t forgotten about and honours all those who lost their lives by making sure their voices are and will always be heard.
Standing right at the heart of this story is an innocent little boy who loves reading Harry Potter, enjoys dancing to Britney on MTV with his beloved pug (also called Britney) and wants to be a vet when he grows up. It’s heartbreaking to read as we watch Willem grow up being bullied at school being called a moffie. He keeps to himself as best as he can but is often targeted by Anton and his gang. One such incident which leads to Willem being expelled and sent off to New Dawn. It was emotional as Willem often wished he was invisible like a chameleon or he would receive his letter from Hogwarts telling him he was someone else. You feel for him deeply as he suffers a lot at such a young age. He doesn’t play sports and would rather be in the library. He can’t swim and avoids changing room situations whenever possible. He has to take tablets to calm him down and constantly wishes he could disappear like Frodo in LOTR. No person should ever have to feel like that. We watch him be teased, thrown into the lake, have his curly hair all cut off and locked up in the bird cage for trying to escape. He refuses to back down and fights for the right to be himself.
The males portrayed are mostly depicted as masculine macho types. Your stereotypical vision of a man. Rick calls his own son a moffie because he is different and Jan is always complaining that Willem isn’t like other boys. It is his idea to send him off New Dawn. The General in charge at the camp is any boy’s worst nightmare. No mobiles, no drinking, no smoking, no drugs, a lot isn’t allowed and you soon find yourself as a patchwork blanket as the sharp barbed wire cuts deep into your back as you army crawl through. It makes you question gender roles and why males are forced throughout history to hide their emotions and lack any sort of humanity?
I give You Will Be Safe Here By Damian Barr a Four out of Five paw rating.
Honest and brutal writing that sends a strong message everywhere, can you ever really be safe anywhere? The women in the camps are promised they will be safe as they continue to live in squalor. The walk from school to home is filled with predators and camps such as New Dawn are scattered everywhere, hidden out of sight with monsters in charge. You can only hope that one day justice will be delivered to so many who have been wronged and we will never be forgot the suffering they had to endure. Never.
Don’t forget to follow the rest of the blog tour, dates below, enjoy!
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