Damian Barr explains the upsetting genesis of his impressive debut novel, You Will Be Safe Here, in his acknowledgements:
‘This story began with a picture of a boy in a newspaper. That boy was Raymond Buys and he’d been killed in a camp not unlike New Dawn. He was just 15. This book is dedicated to him.’
So the novel opens with a prologue in which a boy, Willem, is left at the New Dawn camp, south of Johannesburg, in 2010. Then Part One takes us back to 1901, to the diary entries of Mrs Sarah van der Watt, about to be taken from her farm — which she watches burn under the British scorched earth policy — to a concentration camp near Bloemfontein. Sarah’s voice is intimately rendered in her diary, where she records what she and her young son suffer at the hands of the British, and which she addresses to her husband, away fighting: ‘Knowing you will some day read this, believe this, is all that’s keeping me sane.’
Death stalks the camp: typhoid and malaria are rampant and whistles are blown, ominously frequently, as each life passes. We feel the horror of the conditions — the punitive rations, communal latrine pits, its ‘bird cage’ prison, and separation of ill children from their mothers — especially keenly for coming at them via a woman’s inner life, as recorded in her diary. Barr achieves a powerful jarring in making his British readers experience such empathy with Sarah, while knowing our historical counterparts were on the other side.
Sarah’s diary is abruptly left for Part Two, which rapidly spans three recent Afrikaner generations in Johannesburg: Rayna in the 1970s, whose bright prospects are extinguished when she’s raped; her daughter Irma, 20 years later, pregnant with a baby that arrives on Mandela’s election day; and Willem (from the prologue), Irma’s son, who we watch grow into a ‘sensitive’ boy, prone to wetting himself, and teased for being ‘a moffie’ (gay).
It isn’t until Part Three that we return to New Dawn and the crux of the action. The camp is run by ‘the General’, who preaches his far right politics and trains the boys to fight for a Boer Free State; he also physically and sexually abuses them. When it transpires that the General is descended from Part One’s Sarah, we see how, in three generations, the detainee of a camp has morphed into the keeper of one.
In this eye-opening and meticulously researched novel (which comes six years after Barr’s memoir Maggie & Me), the author argues that to understand South Africa’s complicated and violent current political situation — a situation that led to the death of Raymond Buys — we have to look to its past, and the role played by the British in it.
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.