British writer and journalist Damian Barr’s first novel takes in over a hundred years of South African history beginning with the Boer War where a “scorched earth” policy led to those unwilling to sign a pledge of allegiance to the British Crown being evicted from their homes and into internment camps. For the first section of the novel we follow Mrs Van Der Witt and her young son Fred through diary entries written in the camp intended for her husband fighting the English in 1901.
A prologue introduces us to a modern camp which is picked up on again in the second narrative thread when teenager Willem’s parents send him to a conversion camp to make a man out of him. The two narratives are linked through location and a school history lesson visit to the turn of the century site.
This is a powerful and chilling read and is, on consideration, the best book I have read so far this year ahead of critically acclaimed titles from big-hitters such as Kate Atkinson, Belinda Bauer and Liam McIlvanney. The history of South Africa is complex but by touching on two time zones Barr manages to get an epic sweep and involves the reader through strong characterisation and an unpredictable and occasionally brutal plot.
The aspect which stops me giving it five stars, thus keeping it as a book I would certainly like to hang onto to read again rather than a book I couldn’t bear to part with is its narrative structure which makes some significant moments seem a little unresolved and despite some connections makes the early narrative a little distant from the contemporary one. I think running the two strands a little more side by side could have been more powerful, but probably as many readers would be frustrated by this structure. Here, I felt the moving forwards through time at critical moments seemed a little jarring as these moments are left to dangle and not always be picked up immediately, which felt a little like producing cliff hangers for cliff hangers sake. This can be done very successfully as in John Boyne’s “The Heart’s Invisible Furies” but here at times I found it slightly grating.
Minor quibbles, however, for a very strong debut novel written with what I can best describe as a calm powerfulness which will stay with the reader for a considerable time.
You Will Be Safe Here is published in hardback by Bloomsbury on April 4th. Many thanks to the publishers and to Netgalley for the advance review copy.