“You Will Be Safe Here” by Damian Barr— Abuse, Redemption and the Human Spirit

Barr, Damian. “You Will Be Safe Here”, Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019.

Abuse, Redemption and the Human Spirit

Amos Lassen

In “You Will Be Safe Here”, Damian Barr explores  abuse, redemption, and the strength of the human spirit and their legacies from the Boer Wars in South Africa to brutal wilderness camps for teenage boys.

We begin in 1901 in South Africa at the height of the second Boer War. Sarah van der Watt and her six-year-old son Fred are forced from their home on Mulberry Farm and the polite invaders welcome them to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp where they promise Sarah and Fred that they will be safe there.

We switch to 2014 and meet sixteen-year-old Willem, an outsider. His mother and her boyfriend want him to become the man she wants him to be and force Willem to attend the New Dawn Safari Training Camp where they are proud to make men out of boys. They promise that he will be safe there.

“You Will Be Safe Here” is a powerful novel of two connected South African stories that were  inspired by real events and they bring forth both a hidden colonial history and a dark contemporary secret as the novel explores the legacy of violence and our will to survive.

This is a powerfully moving tale that brings the Boer war and contemporary South Africa together. We have beautiful moments of love alongside too much private grief in three unforgettable stories. I was both devastated and educated as I walked the paths where historical grief engendered violence. I grew to care for every character and it is amazing how three very different stories are  woven together in such unexpected and powerful ways.

Here is a novel concerned with a single strain of human history “of how a people are made and unmade and how they go on to make and unmake others, of the stories they tell themselves to allow such things to pass.” Author Barr has “captured the threads of all of human history” and his novel is very unsettling in the narrative and in the way that narrative reveals hidden trails through the points of light and darkness, such that the reader reaches the end after having seen over one hundred years in the making. I doubt I will ever forget what I read here nor do I want to forget it. By exploring sins of the past, we feel the impact they continue to have on the present. This is quite an accomplishment for a first novel and “an unblinking look at the terrors humankind can perpetrate to squash the ‘other.’”

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