editor's choice



I was looking at the book jacket of Damian Barr’s You Will Be Safe Here a few days back, when I reread it, and was struck by how many adjectives have been applied to it by so many great writers, so you’ll forgive me if I repeat some of them in the course of this humble review. I bought it just after it was published last year in hardback, partly because I loved Barr’s memoir and partly because I was intrigued by the premise of his debut novel. A large part of the plot deals with a particularly sensitive area in modern history – the British concentration camps in the Boer War. It’s a mesmerisingly good book, courageous, disturbing, uncomfortable and yet beautiful in its pared back, lean prose.

Set in South Africa, the storyline weaves two time frames together, 1901, the height of the second Boer War, during which Sarah van der Watt and her six-year-old son, Fred, are forcibly relocated from their farm to the British-controlled Bloemfontein Concentration Camp, and 2010, when sixteen-year-old Willem is sent to New Dawn Safari Training Camp, where boys are turned into men. Inspired by true events, the novel essentially explores darkness and light, the cruelty and kindnesses that humans can mete out in the most extreme of circumstances.

It’s by no means an easy read, a sense of disquiet underpinning everything, and yet it is compelling. We cannot look away when Barr reveals heart-rending moments in history and the near present that seem too cruel, too harsh, too brutal for comprehension – and yet we know they inform our collective past.

I cannot recommend this book enough. Barr’s use of language is wonderful – careful prose describing the most awful of situations, the most desperate of times, with compassion, yes, but with honesty too. Certainly, it’s not for the faint-hearted, but then so many great books quite often aren’t.

And isn’t that what we want from good literature? To be made to think, to question, to shout, yell, laugh, to have our hearts race – yes, even have them broken. As long as that happens, we care, and, as long as that happens, the events that Barr describes surely can’t happen again. Surely? Well, I guess history will out.


You Will Be Safe Here | Damian Barr | Bloomsbury | paperback | £8.99 | 2 April 2020

hardback edition £16.99 | ebook also available

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Acknowledgements: Quoted text from You Will Be Safe Here © Damian Barr 2019. Hardback edition our own.

This review is published as part of the book tour. Many thanks to Anne Cater for the invitation.  All opinions are our own. All rights reserved. Please check out the other reviews on this tour.

See also: Prospect beautiful, Derek Jarman’s cottage‘; ‘Chris Whitaker’s small-town America’; ‘Nora Roberts’ Sanctuary: an Old Familiar’; Carver’s Nothing Important Happened Today’; By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept’; ‘Yvonne Battle-Fenton’s Remembered‘; ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised‘; ‘We should all be feminists‘; The not-so-invisible woman: 150 greats in their own words’; ‘How Penguin learned to fly – Allen Lane and the Original “Penguin Ten”‘; Dorothy L. Sayer’s Busman’s Holiday – Romek Marber for Penguin Crime (book covers we love).

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