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
“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
“A gripping, heartbreaking tale of uncomfortable histories and the resilience of love.” — Graham Norton
“Barr is a natural storyteller, and each distinct part of the book is moving.” — Times of London
“A powerfully moving tale that weaves dazzlingly between the Boer war and contemporary South Africa.” — Guardian
“Funny, tender, and heartbreaking . . . A gifted storyteller.” — Independent on Sunday
“Barr’s writing has a lightness of touch and warm humour which makes it easy to root for him . . . His life has become a triumph.” — Observer
“Barr has a keen eye for wincingly evocative detail . . . Lyrical” — New Statesman
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
“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
PRAISE FOR DAMIAN BARR AND MAGGIE & ME
“Maggie & Me is a tremendous, surprising read . . . A book that's hard to put down, laugh out loud funny and profoundly moving.” — British GQ
“A fine memoir about the drama, pain, and humour of growing up gay, gifted, and poor . . . [Barr] has an uncanny ability to employ wit to flip you from a wince to a smile — and sometimes right back again. When need be, he conveys maximum visceral impact, like a Scottish Frank McCourt of Angela’s Ashes fame.” — Winnipeg Free Press
“This memoir of deprivation and survival is shrewdly constructed and written with a winning dry humour.” — Guardian
“Undoubtedly, many readers will be riled at the thought of this positive spin on Thatcher, but Barr is writing from his own, unique perspective — he knows she almost screwed his life up completely, but also acknowledges that she was a glimmer of light in the darkness. It’s a compelling read, which I thoroughly recommend.” — Herald Scotland
“An excellent read, and a vital reminder of how much we are shaped by the culture which surrounds us.” — Huffington Post
“It’s too bad [Margaret Thatcher] didn’t live to read this book. She’d have been proud of Barr’s resilience — and his generosity of spirit.” — Maclean’s
“The writing is beautiful . . . the evocation of his childhood tender and affectionate, the summoning up of a particular time and place pin-sharp. A poignant and often humorous memoir, full of energy and life.” — Sunday Times
“An affecting memoir without cliches.” — Independent