You Will Be Safe Here, by Damian Barr. Bloomsbury Publishing. Review by Dale Boyer
Note: a version of this review appeared formerly in The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
How does the past ripple through to the present? In what ways do the actions of those who've lived in the past affect everyone alive today?
You Will Be Safe Here is an examination of those themes. Taking place both in the Boer War era of South Africa in 1901 and in modern day Johannesburg circa 2010, the novel tracks multiple story lines that only converge and begin to make sense about halfway through the book.
Beginning with the diary entries of Sarah van der Watt, a member of a Boer (Afrikaans for "farmer") family taken by force from their farm and sent by the British to a concentration camp, Sarah writes of her struggles as 250,000 British imperial forces are deployed to an Orange Free State and the Transvaal comprising just 17,000 men. As the author points out in an afterward, the story of the Boer Wars is not taught in schools anymore. No one wants to revisit it. Once referred to as the last gentleman's war, it was anything but. The author asserts that during the Boer war, not only did the British invent the scorched-earth policy, burning 30,000 farms, they also invented the concentration camp as a result of the relocations. Indeed, Hitler reportedly studied the actions of the British in that era, though the concentration camps there were not designed as actual death camps. Nevertheless, more people died in them due to famine, disease, and other hardships than in the war itself. When the van der Watt family is placed there and told, "You will be safe here," the heavy irony is that never could anything have been less true.
So, too, in modern Johannesburg, Willem, a 16-year-old gay-leaning man is sent by his well-meaning parents to a camp meant to toughen him up and, in the words of his mother's live-in boyfriend, "make a man out of him." Of course, he is not safe there at all: the camp turns out to be a front for the ultra-right-wing New Dawn, where he is subjected to numerous tortures, both mental and physical. What is revealed during his ordeal is not only the struggle of a gay man yearning to be free, but also the tensions of modern day South Africa. Readers without some basic understanding of South Africa's history may feel a bit at sea; the book might have benefited from a short glossary as well, since Afrikaans words are sprinkled throughout.
Nevertheless, You Will be Safe Here is a gripping read, and its prose could hardly be sparer and smarter. Key plot points are revealed in apparently insignificant details, so the reader needs to pay close attention throughout to piece the entire story together. There is nothing wrong with this -- in fact, it's a strength of the book and a hallmark of the author's fine writing. But, it is also, in a sense, a bit of a limitation. The prose is as hard-edged as a diamond, and cuts just as deep, but it leaves little room for emotion, other than a profound sense of how brutal history can be. Most of all, it points out the fact that history is a kind of umbilical that runs through time and has reverberations and implications not immediately apparent. At one point, the boy reflects that he is being sent to the camp because of a bullying incident at school that resulted in an accidental injury, the bullying itself the result of an earlier incident on a bus when he wet his pants because the bus driver was afraid to stop in a bad neighborhood. As the boy puts it:
"He's only in this place now because he got expelled but what happened … only happened because of what he can hardly bear to remember on the minibus. And that only happened because they couldn't stop on the road because of what might have happened if they had. If it had been safe to stop he could have got out and had a piss and that would have been that. He could have been at home right now."
You Will Be Safe Here is smart and extremely well written, but readers expecting a gay novel along the lines of Tatamkhulu Afrika's Bitter Eden (another South African prisoner-of-war camp story, set during WWII and featuring a gay couple) will be disappointed. Instead, it is a remarkably effective novel about the historic tensions that have informed South Africa since its birth; the fact that one of the main characters is gay is just one among a multiplicity of tensions. Although there is no real resolution or explanation for the cycle of events, no straight line from history from one event to the present, there is instead a very trenchant and sympathetic portrait of how man's inhumanity to man churns and cycles through each era and erupts into the present.