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Title: You Will Be Safe Here
Author: Damian Barr
Published: 4th April 2019/ 2nd April 2020 – Bloomsbury Publishing
Format: Ebook – 352 pages
Hello Hello! How are you?
Today is another #RandomThingsTours stop for me for my review of You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr. Thank you so much to Anne Cater for letting me participate in this tour and for sending me the book.
I haven’t read many books set in Africa, in fact, I think the only two I have are Roots by Alex Haley which I read a few years ago after my mum kept talking to me about it, I adored it and gave it 5 stars; and Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, which fell a bit flat, bored me and I didn’t really get it, I think I gave it 3 stars, but it put me off books set in Africa, hence the reason why I haven’t picked one up since. However, when Anne sent me the email about this book I couldn’t believe my eyes. I’d seen this book promoted on social media for a while and I wasn’t expecting Anne to host a tour for it, and when I read the synopsis, I knew I had to give it a go! Keep reading to find out what I thought of this book!
South Africa, 1901, the height of the second Boer War. 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.
Johannesburg, 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.
You Will Be Safe Here is a deeply moving novel of connected parts. Inspired by real events, it uncovers a hidden colonial history and present-day darkness while exploring our capacity for cruelty and kindness.
You Will Be Safe Here is a historical fiction standalone novel, set in South Africa, first in 1901 and then in 2010, following the lives of two families seemingly unlinked expect for their South African heritage. It took me a while to get through this book, it was quite a complicated read, not in the words but it’s a lot to take in and the sheer amount of trauma and suffering you read in this book does take a while to read and take in. Despite saying that, I enjoyed reading this book a lot.
The book is divided into four parts physically, but I suppose you could say that with the two stories, it is actually separated into two parts, the past, and the present. The book starts in 1901, on the van der Watt’s farm when the English are coming. This first part is set during the Second Boer War when Sarah van der Watt and her 6-year-old son Fred are taken from their farm and put into Bloemfontein Concentration Camp. I actually had no idea that there had been concentration camps during this war, and much like the historical note at the end of the book explains, the only things I had known about the Boer Wars before reading this book was that they were for all intents and purposes a “Victorian Gentleman’s War”. I never knew about all the atrocities that were forced on these people and this wasn’t from lack of trying. I’ve always been fascinated by history and when my English civilisation class went over this time period quickly a few years ago, I tried to look up anything I could on the Boer Wars, but I didn’t get very far.
We follow Sarah’s diary entries for the first 100 pages of this book, and I have to say, I enjoyed this part so much, I couldn’t really say which part I liked the most because when I finished the book, I was surprised by the whole story, but this whole part was definitely very strong and at times, hard to read. She starts writing in her notebook when her husband Samuel has gone away to fight in the war, and she sees smoke rising over the South African countryside, signalling the approach of the English. When Sarah and her son arrive in the camp, she keeps writing in her notebook even though it is forbidden, and she recounts every day, showing the reader the atrocities of war and the struggles she faces on a daily basis in the camp. This part is a lot to take in because of how it is written, it is very raw and you don’t get a break from all the horrors, but it was also beautiful because of the resilience of human beings that you witness through her testimonies.
The second part of the book is set in what we could call the present day, from around the 1980s to 2015, following three generations of the same family, leading up to the birth of the second main character, Willem Brandt. During these last 3 parts of the book, we see the struggles after Apartheid and how all the whites in South Africa struggled to come to terms with the mix of black and white people around them, leading up to Mandela’s presidency, and then to the 2000s, when problems are still surging throughout the country. There is definitely a big contrast between the first and second parts of this book, in the second part we follow Willem throughout his childhood and his teenage years, and then as he goes to New Dawn, a camp supposedly meant to make young boys who are not quite like the rest, man up and become soldiers.
This second part of the book was also quite hard to read, you learn a lot about the history of the country and you come to terms with the fact that the white people living in South Africa believe to this day, after going through all the wars and struggles that they are the rightful inhabitants of the land and that they will one day rise up and take back what is theirs.
I really wasn’t expecting these two stories to come together, but when they did form a link right at the end of part 3, I was completely shocked. Despite all the struggles between the Boer Wars and the present time when Willem is at New Dawn, the two stories are tied together and they both come back to the same thing. I think the reason why I struggled getting into this book and why it took me quite a while to read it was because I didn’t know that there would be a link. I didn’t realise that the story would circle back around to the start, so I was struggling to find a reason why these two stories were told one beside the other, but looking back on it now, I think that the author made the right choice and I can really appreciate the story for what it is.
One thing that I love to find in books, is the reason for the title, and the title in this instance was actually really meaningful. All throughout this story, the two characters are told that they will be safe at the camps. Sarah is told that it is for her own protection and that she and her son will be safe. And Willem is told it is for his own good, it is to make him a man, and that he will be safe. However, the truth is that neither are safe, they never were, and the atrocities that are inflicted upon them were inevitable.
MY THOUGHTS AND RATING
As I said, it did take me a while to read this book, but now that I’ve finished it and I’ve been able to think about it, I really do appreciate it. It isn’t the type of book that I would usually reach for, but now that I’ve experienced this book, I just want to read it again and find loads of other books like it. I have to say that it is the sort of book that will leave you questioning the reason why it was written because you won’t see the links until the very end, but when you put it down after turning to the last page, everything comes back to you and it clicks. When I finished this book, I was lost for words and I couldn’t help but let out a big breath that I hadn’t realised I was holding.
I gave this book 4 stars, but I think that if I were to read it again, now that I know the ending and I can appreciate why it was written the way it was, I would probably give it 5 stars. I did struggle with this one and at times everything was not clear, the different points of view were a bit hard to get used to, but overall, this was a beautiful yet devastating book. I couldn’t really say that the writing was a certain way because of all the horrors and suffering you read about, it does make it hard to evaluate the actual writing style, but I think that it was written in a way that you can’t help but keep reading. I really did enjoy my time reading it, I would definitely recommend and I look forward to reading more books by this author.
Once again, thank you to Anne and Damian for letting me be part of this blog tour and for sending me the book. I loved this one and I think I’m going to have to reread it soon!
That’s all for now, I hope you enjoyed this review, sorry it was a long one, I just had so much to say. See you soon, stay safe,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR – DAMIAN BARR
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.
Twitter Handle: @Damian_Barr
If you would like to purchase this book, you can find it here: Amazon UK (affiliate link) – Amazon FR (affiliate link) – AbeBooks (affiliate link) – The Book Depository (affiliate link) – Audible FR (affiliate link) – Amazon US – Waterstones – Barnes and Noble – Audible UK – Kobo