Damian Barr: You Will Be Safe Here
Published By: Bloomsbury
Buy It: here
What The Blurb Says:
The book that will change the way you see the world.
2010. Sixteen-year-old outsider Willem just wants to be left alone with his books and his dog. Worried he’s not turning out right, his ma and her boyfriend send him to New Dawn Safari Training Camp. Here they ‘make men out of boys’. Guaranteed.
1901. The height of the second Boer War in South Africa. Sarah van der Watt and her son are taken from their farm by force to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp where, the English promise: they will be safe.
What I Say:
It’s not often that a novel renders me speechless, overawed and ashamed at my lack of knowledge about the world, but You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr is that novel.
It is the story of Sarah van der Watt and her son Fred, who are sent to the Bloemfontein Refugee Camps during the Boer War. Sarah’s husband has left their farm to fight the British Troops, and she is left with her son and servants, aware that soon everything they own will be destroyed according to the British Army’s Scorched Earth missive. Sarah’s story is revealed to us through the diaries she keeps to tell her husband what has been happening to them.
As soon as Sarah and Fred are unceremoniously bundled into a train and sent to Bloemfontein, you know that everything they have ever known is to be snatched away from them and their lives will never be the same again. When they are told ‘You Will Be Safe Here’, you realise that this will never be true.
The camp is dirty, overcrowded and a place where the people are controlled by numerous, unattainable rules and regulations. Daily life soon becomes little more than a battle to survive, and Sarah’s refusal to sign a card backing what the English troops have done, move her and Fred down the social scale to that of undesirables. Their rations are cut further, they have no means of keeping clean, and unsurprisingly, illness and death are rife.
Fred falls ill and ends up in the camp hospital, but the ridiculous bureaucracy mean that Sarah is rarely permitted to even speak to her son let alone comfort him. In this awful place, women are pushed to the limit, and have to use their bodies as currency to get the medicine that their children need.
They are cut off from their husbands with rare if any communication, they have no information, no voice, and are reliant only on the news they are told by those who control them. In spite of the Army telling the women that this is a refugee camp, it is blatantly obvious to us as readers that Bloemfontein is a Concentration Camp.
In spite of all this, the one resounding note that permeates all the way through this part of the novel, is Sarah’s love for her son and husband. No matter how awful her day to day reality is, she knows that she has no choice but to keep strong for her family. All the people in Bloemfontein are there because they are displaced, dislocated from their world because they do not fit in with what is expected and are punished for it.
In modern day South Africa, Willem is not like the other boys. He finds joy in his books, in learning, in simply loving to dance and sing when he is in the safety of his home. Unfortunately, him not being like the other boys in his class means that he becomes a constant target.
There is a really clever and haunting scene where Willem and his class go to the Bloemfontein Museum, and the students are given identity cards of people who were at the camp, and Willem gets Fred’s. It is the perfect way for Damian to beautifully bring the two storylines together, to show us that everything and nothing has changed. That although it may seem our society is far more civilised, the very fact Training Camps existed in modern South Africa means that nothing had changed at all. Difference and being unique is not celebrated, it is feared, and the notion of masculinity is so fixed that anyone who falls outside it must be brought into line, to fit into the crowd to avoid any negative attention being forced on the family.
The arrival of Willem’s stepfather Jan, a security guard with a whole lot of determination and a bucketload of testosterone, means that Willem is now seen as a problem to be fixed. When Willem injures one of his bullies, Jan has the perfect reason to insist that he be sent to the New Dawn Safari Training Camp.
From the moment Willem arrives, it becomes clear that this is no ordinary Summer Camp. His hair is shaved off, and the brutal regime instigated by The General and his second in command Volker starts. The boys are treated like slaves, they have little or inedible food, are made to take part in intensive exercise regimes, and dig holes all over the camp. The reason for this is that the General in convinced there is buried treasure in the land, and he has the perfect supply of cheap labour to find it.
Willem’s only solace is in his friendship with Geldenhuys, a sensitive boy who has been sent to the camp as his parents fear he may be gay. Their friendship gives them both the connection and strength they need to survive in this hell, and some of the most beautiful parts of the novel are the way in which these two young men see something in each other and know that together their friendship can overcome everything.
The novel moves towards its profound and devastating conclusion, and at the end I was speechless and humbled. Ashamed that I had no knowledge of the Boer War, or of these awful Camps that existed. I have a son with special needs, who would by many be classed as an outsider, someone who does not fit in with what is expected, a perfect candidate for these sorts of camps. The horror I felt reading this inhumane treatment of boys by an awful, power crazed excuse of a human being chilled me to the core. I am not ashamed to say I cried when I finished reading You Will Be Safe Here, and for a book to move me so deeply, and make me so angry means it is a very special novel indeed.
You Will Be Safe Here is without doubt on my Novel Of The Year List. It is a mesmerising exploration of what it means to belong, and what happens when you don’t. It is a harrowing study of a world where the most vulnerable among us are left at the mercy of those who want to dominate. It is appalling to be faced with a world where difference is something to be hidden away and eradicated, rather than loved and celebrated.
If you take anything from You Will Be Safe Here, let it be this. That the voices of those who are different should be heard, and that these atrocities can never be allowed to happen again.
I loved it.