Damian Barr’s moving debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, follows the stories of two people who lived over one hundred years apart, but whose lives are inexplicably connected through the colonial horrors of the past.
You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr is one of the most beautiful, powerful and poignant books I have read in a long, long time.
I carried this book around in my handbag everywhere I went; I read it on the cramped Central Line during rush hour, on stolen slightly-longer-than-they-should-be lunch breaks, whilst waiting for friends who were running late to dinner. I read it every moment I could, and when I finished it, I sat in silence reflecting on everything I had learned and felt.
To understand why You Will Be Safe Here affected me the way it did, let’s step back just a little bit. Around two years ago, I had a realisation that I didn’t really know all that much about my personal family history. I knew that my grandparents had been made refugees during the Partition of India, though it was not something I consciously engaged with.
I had a sense that the stories of my Grandparents were the missing part in my understanding of myself, but I didn’t know how or why. I embarked on an urgent search to know more, to learn the details and intricacies of their stories, to connect the dots between the past and the present.
By retracing their stories I learned three things that fundamentally changed my life: firstly, that the past and the present are inextricably linked; secondly, that to understand the sometimes baffling world we live in now, we must look back; and finally, that the depth and breadth of human tragedy caused by colonialism is beyond comprehension.
It is these same themes that Barr explores in his debut novel. Aside from my personal connection to the themes, You Will Be Safe Here took a hold on me because Barr’s writing is painfully detailed and descriptive. Barr builds complex characters that carry us through an unfamiliar world; one which is almost unimaginable, despite being based on true historical events.
You Will Be Safe Here follows the stories of two people who lived over one hundred years apart, but their lives are inexplicably linked. We begin the journey in 1901, in South Africa at the height of the Boer War. The story starts with Sarah’s letters to her estranged husband as she describes watching her livestock being slaughtered and her house being burnt down by Colonial soldiers.
The soldiers seize her and her young son, and send them to a British concentration camp. Her days quickly fill up with accounts of disease, discomfort and devastation – life inside the walls of the concentration camp, a concept made a reality for the first time by Colonial rule.
More than a hundred years later, the story takes us to Willem, a challenging teenage boy who is dropped off at a camp that promises to “make men out of boys”. A quiet but complicated boy, Willem is left at the intimidating entrance to the camp by his frustrated mother and uncompassionate stepfather.
Barr accurately captures Willem’s grief: a young, lost boy who is trapped in an unspeakably cruel world, “He’s never seen a sky so big or so bright. It’s dizzying and he spins slowly to take it all in”. What awaits Willem beyond these camp doors is as heartbreaking as the story from a hundred years ago.
You Will Be Safe Here is a painful and important read. As a reader, knowing the narratives of both the central characters are based on true historical events is deeply unsettling. Barr explores the depths of evil human behaviour and shows us that there is no present without the past; from the colonial practices during the Boer war that laid the foundations for apartheid, to Sarah and Willems’ stories, everything is connected. Whilst the stories of both the central characters are undeniably painful, I wouldn’t be doing the book justice without conveying that it is also filled with hope, light and love. Barr tells their stories with awe and urgency, he takes us all the way down the pit of cruelty, and also lifts us all the way back up. The overriding message is that above everything else, human compassion is the strongest force of all.
You Will Be Safe Here is published by Bloomsbury Fiction and available to purchase online and in all good bookshops nationwide. Click the links to find out more about Damian Barr and his previous publications.
The feature image is of a British concentration camp for Boer women and children during the Boer War from the National Army Museum.