About this book
You Will Be Safe Here
South Africa, 1901: At 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 mother 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 two connected parts. Inspired by real events, it uncovers a hidden colonial history and present-day darkness while exploring our capacity for cruelty and kindness.
Now the moment is here, Irma doesn’t know quite what to do. She pushes the intercom again, careful of her new nails.
‘They for sure know we’re coming, ja?’
‘Just leave it,’ says Jan, fussing with his camera. ‘Get in the picture, eh. Willem, shades off, arm round your ma.’
Willem’s eyeroll is almost audible. No, he won’t hold her. He feels her neediness and it grosses him out — if she really loved him as much as she’s always saying, she wouldn’t be leaving him here. For the whole three-hour drive he bored a deep hole in the back of Jan’s thick bald head. Finally, Jan — who he’ll never call Pa — leaned back and snapped Answer your mother but Willem just pushed his earbuds deeper, gloried as Harry was chosen for Gryffindor yet again. He didn’t realise he was moving his lips to the words till he caught Jan smirking in the mirror and shuttered his face with his hoodie. Willem needs magic today, even if he is too old for it.
‘Closer,’ says Jan, edging them towards the white ex-demonstrator four-wheel-drive Ford with good fuel economy that his boss cut him a deal on. ‘Let me get the truck in.’
Irma nudges Willem: ‘Smile nice.’
Willem slides his Oakleys off and half opens his eyes — pilot-light blue, like his pa’s. People are always telling him to smile. He’s not been up this early for what, months, years? His ma swipes his hood off and curls the exact colour of Easter chicks spring away from his face. He’s got a perfect library tan. He’s hiding in his baggiest black hoodie and track pants and his feet flop in bright white Adidas Hi Tops, a puppy growing into his paws. The crappy Casio he got for his sixteenth is back home because who wears a watch now and he’d still be late anyway, Jan says. Willem braces for the flash.
‘Smile,’ sing-songs Jan, cutting the word in two: SMY-ILL. He holds the camera out, pushing Willem away. Irma turns her engagement ring, hopes it shows. Her eyes, smudges of no-run mascara, brim with her boy. When did he get so big? Will this place fix him? She tugs at the sleeveless white top that doesn’t hug her where she doesn’t want it to and loops her right arm through Willem’s left. She pulls him closer. They’ve not quite finished arranging their faces when Jan clicks the button. The flash is lost in spring sunshine.
Willem bolts over to the gate. It’s barbed wire, but barely man-high. Out here walls are lower — you can see gardens. Only the ground-floor windows have bars. There’s no movement from the low redbrick homestead up ahead. A shady stoep wraps around it waiting for rocking chairs. A pocked satellite dish clings to the stone chimney. There must be security. Willem identifies some kind of Prunus guarding the gate, but the crows have had its fruit.
There are no other houses. No other people. A heavy-shouldered red barn squats on the horizon opposite. Behind it a vast dark steelworks blots out the sky. Clouds belch from giant cooling towers with the ghetto curves all the girls want. Lightsaber-green flames —bright even on a day like today — flicker from skinny sky-high pipes. The air tastes of old torch batteries licked on a dare.
While they stand around waiting for the buzz-click of electric locks Jan checks for cameras. Weekend by weekend he’s filled their bungalow with them. He bribed Willem to put the feed on his phone and is gripped: watching empty rooms, waiting for people he knows to walk in and do what they always do. Jan dreams of a panic room. He gives Irma a look as she lights another menthol. She feels her boy moving further and further away. In her head, she goes over all the bits she’s packed. The list from New Dawn was detailed, extensive and expensive: two pairs of trousers, two T-shirts, a cap and two dress shirts (all khaki), then boots, running tekkies, trunks, towels, sheets, sleeping bag, tin plate, mug and bowl and a Bible (travel size). No mobiles but she won’t be the one to tell him. A hunting knife will be provided but used only under strict supervision. Safety First At New Dawn!
About the Author
DAMIAN BARR is an award-winning writer and columnist. His work has appeared in the Times, Independent, Telegraph, Financial Times, Guardian, Evening Standard, and Granta. Maggie & 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 Award. He is also the creator and host of The Literary Salon, which premieres work from established and emerging writers. Damian Barr lives in Brighton, U.K.
Awards and Praise
PRAISE FOR DAMIAN BARR AND YOU WILL BE SAFE HERE:
An NPR Book of the Year
“Barr does an admirable job of describing a society struggling to reinvent itself.” — Winnipeg Free Press
“Barr’s facility with language is on display here, and many readers will happily lose themselves in his supple prose.” — LAMBDA Literary Review
“Barr’s writing is strong.” — Toronto Star
“Vivid and informative . . . This book will sit with you for a long time.” — Sunday Times, FIVE-STAR REVIEW
“Grips you by the throat from its ominous prologue to its shattering conclusion . . . Barr paints a graphic, compelling picture of a world founded on white entitlement, machismo, racism and homophobia. The novel’s story resonates far beyond South Africa. No one is safe here.” — Saturday Paper
“[Damian Barr] has written a majestic novel that bears witness to the horrors of any war and the ongoing traumas of a peace without reckoning and remembrance.” — Business Day
“Barr traces a history of violence with compassion and a sweeping poetic intensity.” — Sunday Morning Herald
“A harrowing novel delivered with honesty and empathy.” — LitHub
“Barr shifts between two very different tones with a light touch, maintaining a subtle emotional intelligence throughout.” — Guardian
“Barr has written a novel pleasurably rich with lines that would lose half their power if they lost just one of their words.” — Herald
“A story so powerful and upsetting that it’s a useful reminder of how fiction can illuminate the indignities visited upon those the world has mistreated and then forgotten.” — Irish Times
“A powerfully moving tale that weaves dazzlingly between the Boer war and contemporary South Africa.” — Observer
“Barr is a natural storyteller, and each distinct part of the book is moving.” — Times of London
“A gripping, heartbreaking tale of uncomfortable histories and the resilience of love.” — Graham Norton (via @grahnort)
“Completely gripping and profoundly moving — you care for every character. Each of the very different stories is deeply affecting, and they’re woven together in such unexpected and powerful ways. Barr handles the most difficult material with the lightest touch.” — Maggie O’Farrell, author of The Hand That First Held Mine and This Must Be the Place
“Brutal, haunting, redemptive, and with not an ounce of fat left on it. Beautiful.” — Jojo Moyes, author of Me Before You
“Epic . . . Immersive, moving, horrifying, and beautiful. You will LOVE it.” —Marian Keyes, author of This Charming Man
“Devastating and formally ingenious, it traces the paths by which historical grief engenders present violence . . . A vitally brave and luminously compassionate book.” — Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You
“Insightful and compassionate, open-hearted and unblinking. Barr gives us three unforgettable stories in this powerful, groundbreaking book.” — Amy Bloom
“Sweeping yet intimate, heart-breaking yet often very funny . . . This book confirms Barr as one of our most brilliant and big-hearted writers.” — Alex Preston, author of The Bleeding City
“It’s rare for a novel to go so deep that you come out of reading it a different person from when you went in. Damian Barr’s investigation of a part of South Africa's history the British have been trying to forget for many many years is such a book. It was a very brave book to write, and parts of it call for some courage to read, but nothing more unusual and impressive has appeared for years.” — Diana Athill
“This would be an achievement for a third or fourth novel; for a first, it’s an astonishing one. Barr’s handling of his bravely chosen material — the conjoined shames of British and Afrikaaner history — is deft and the results will haunt you.” — Patrick Gale, author of Take Nothing With You“As unexpected as it is unsettling, both in the telling and in the way that telling works to reveal hidden trails through the points of light and darkness.” — Aminatta Forna“Few writers can wind you with a word. But Damian Barr doesn’t just do that, he tickles and then floors you, delights only to devastate, within a single phrase.” — Patrick Strudwick, acclaimed journalist and activist