I’ll be honest, this is not something I would normally read.
My normal book pile has either sword fights or gruff and rugged protagonists who shoot first and ask questions later. Preferably both. (I’m looking at you Richard Sharpe!)
The Boer War does crop up a lot in historical fiction. There aren’t any glamorous figures to lynchpin a story around, the costumes aren’t sexy and there are no sword fights. However, despite not having a background in historical fiction, Damian Barr does a superb job of painting a shocking picture of the British concentration camps. But most importantly, how that war at the end of the century shaped South Africa today.
This is done following the golden rule of “Show, Don’t Tell.” He uses everyday objects to tell the story. A toy gun, a christening cup. Going on to the ever-higher walls that surround white houses in South Africa and the glinting razor wire on top.
You Will Be Safe Here is a novel with two parallel narratives. One with Sarah Van Der Watt, a housewife interned in a British concentration camp during the Boer war. The second concerns Willem, a shy teenage boy forced to attend New Dawn – a sinister “character-building” outdoors centre. He uses wonderful imagery such as biblical analogy for Sarah and descriptions like “lightsaber-green” for the geeky Willem.
You’d be forgiven for initially thinking that the story of a teenage boy is a trite analogy compared to the horrors of war, but the comparison is superbly done. The main theme that links both the protagonists together is, quite simply, horrible middle-aged men. In Sarah’s case, the stiff-upper-lipped Brigadier Durham, the indifferent face of the British Empire at Bloemfontein concentration camp. For Willem, a shy and idiosyncratic boy, both his swaggering stepfather Jan and the “General” of New Dawn provide and staggering contrast to his to his own gentleness. Which makes their cruelty and abuse so much more shocking.
The strands of the story are, as you’d expect, eventually weaved together in a very satisfying conclusion. Wait, maybe satisfying is the wrong word here. I’m struggling to think of a phase that encapsulates being punched in the stomach.
Barr uses violence very well. It is never overt, nor gratuitous. But it is done with a visceral effect worthy of Brett Easton Ellis. At the end of the novel, you will feel sick. Fair warning.
However, this isn’t due to some Tarantino splatter-fest – far from it. It is the emotional violence and verbal abuse that really get you. Over the pages, it would take a heart of stone not to feel for Sarah and Willem.
White Nationalism is presented in full, with all its vitriol and contradictions. Sarah’s compassion at the start of the book one hundred years ago seems utterly alien to the bitterness and raw anger of the thugs of the AWB. In a few strokes, Barr gives the image of a South Africa at boiling point.
As mentioned, the Boer War doesn’t perhaps get the literary attention it deserves, and it will certainly be a while before another book of this calibre comes along. Get out of your comfort zone and give it a read!
You can buy You Will Be Safe Here on Amazon.
Jack Shannon is a regular guest contributor to The History Quill. He is currently on the third draft of Brigandine – a dark, bloody fantasy where unfortunately for Ulf (and everyone else), magic is returning to the land of Ashenfell. Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few sword fights. Why not give him a follow on twitter? @Jack_Shannon
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