Bloomsbury Publishing 2nd April 2020 (Paperback)
Willem, an only child growing up in working-class Johannesberg, just wants to be left alone with his books and Britney, his beloved pug. Worried he’s growing up ‘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 surrenders no secrets, whether beaten by the blistering sun or stretching out beneath starlit stillness. Yet there are stories hidden in this land – one hundred years earlier a mother must fight for her boy as British troops arrive. Her story meets Willem’s in ways neither could imagine.
And no secret can stay buried forever.
Thank you firstly to Tandem Collective for organising and inviting me to be part of the read along for You Will Be Safe Here and to the publisher for providing me with a copy of the book. Honestly this was an insightful read set in a time and location that I know little about. The story began in 1901 during the Boer War, this part of the story is told in a diary format of a mother and her son as their home is burnt down under the Scorched Earth policy and they are taken to a concentration camp, her husband is a rebel fighting for the Boers.
Forward to modern day and we meet Rayna and her family, her daughter Irma and Grandson Willem. Rayna has lived and worked through changes in South Africa and within this family unit we see different aspects play out. For Rayna, times have changed and what she always believed is no longer correct, Irma has learn from her mum although meets a man who is further right and his views are more in line with the training camp Willem is subsequently sent to. Willem struggles to fit in and may have additional needs The New Dawn camp run by a man known as the General promises to turn ‘boys to men’ and this is where he goes, with devastating consequences.
The book starts slow and much of what is being referred to was unfamiliar to me, this was true for most in the readalong and it is telling how this aspect of history is hidden. The issue of race is a central theme and while referenced in the concentration camp it is more stark in the post apartheid years when with tensions and long held beliefs contravening the current political situation, there is little integration between white and black and there is a general feeling of superiority held within the white population which reflects the years of segregation and the challenges associated with changing beliefs.
The stories – past and present are linked and a visit to the Boer War museum on the site of the concentration camp highlights the subtle values held which serve to perpetuate a fundamentally racist stance. The book is insightful and educational in a way which I appreciate when reading historical fiction. The telling unfolds and it wasn’t until the concluding pages that I fully appreciated this book as brilliant. All aspects of the story are based on fact and the author has linked these into a eloquent work of fiction.
About the Author
Damian Barr is an award – winning writer, broadcaster and journalist. Maggie and Me, his memoir about coming of age and coming out in Thatcher’s Britain, was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and Sunday Times Memoir of the Year, and won the Paddy Power Political Books Satire Award and Stonewall Writer of the Year. Damian writes a column for High Life and hosts the Big Scottish Book Club for BBC Scotland. His Literary Salon premieres work from established and emerging writers. You Will Be Safe Here is his debut novel and was a Book at Bedtime on BBC Radio 4 and an Observer, Irish Times and NPR Book of the Year. Damian Barr lives in Brighton.