You Will Be Safe Here

Damian Barr

Bloomsbury, £16.99

Review by Alasdair McKillop

DAMIAN Barr has made for himself a career that I wouldn’t mind having. Maybe I could just borrow it for a night or two every now and then, if he’s agreeable.

A columnist, host of the Literary Salon at the Savoy and author of an award-winning memoir – that means he can tell his own story better than most – he has written a memorable first novel. It’s hard to imagine he had time going spare. A recording of Barr interviewing Diana Athill some years before her death was on television recently. In what might have been a final, poignant flourish of good taste, the famous editor welcomed this book into her good graces, judging by the kind words on the back cover. It’s a pity they have been crowded among many but at least they have been crowded to the top.

You Will Be Safe Here has two parts. The first takes the form of a diary kept by Sarah van der Watt for a month during the Boer War. Her husband is “out on commando” fighting the British, so she is taken to Bloemfontein Concentration Camp along with their six-year-old son, Fred. The conditions are shameful and they force people to do shameful things to survive. Some of them, lots of them, don’t. Whistles blow to mark another death like it was the end of a football match.

The second part is about Willem Brandt, a boy born on the day apartheid was stuffed into a box. It takes a more conventional narrative form, albeit moving quickly through time by first introducing the lives of Willem’s grandmother and mother. After an incident at school, he is taken to the New Dawn Safari Training Camp where the conditions are not much better than those endured by Sarah more than 100 years earlier. The main difference is the Afrikaners are now in charge, at least of that small patch of post-Mandela South Africa: apartheid is over, and the always-rotten has apple reverted to a poisonous seed.

Like the hands of nervous lovers on the bus home, the two parts of the book touch discretely and occasionally. For the most part, the stitching is more thematic – the struggles of single-motherhood, the effects of war, or near-war, on individual lives – rather than incidental. Race slinks relentlessly throughout, so it’s fortunate Barr handles it confidently. In many small ways, he proves the triumph of systematic racism is confirmed, secured, perpetuated when it gets control of the unthinking interactions between people. And yet Barr is sophisticated enough to know this triumph can never be total, that moments of tenderness and courtesy can exist alongside something fundamentally wrong, like a brightly coloured bird perched on a branch of a fire-blackened tree.

Barr has written a novel pleasurably rich with lines that would lose half their power if they lost just one of their words. “The air tastes of old torch batteries licked on a dare” is one, with torch having the power to imply whole scenes all on its own.

The stylistic faults are scuffs, not dents. Moonlight milks into tents on two occasions, although I didn’t necessarily dislike the second for remembering the first. People only pad across rooms in books; in real life they walk. More seriously, the second part of the book is over-reliant on obvious pop culture references as Barr tries to establish an authentic voice for the disaffected, teenage Willem. There’s a self-consciousness about it that’s absent from the diary part, as though Barr felt compelled into reliance on his own memories as opposed to trusting his imagination.

The books ends with a trial, the outcome of which Barr conceals cleverly. Willem’s story gets a conclusion of sorts but Sarah’s becomes a faint echo, the implications of which are nevertheless dreadful to contemplate for anyone unable to resist the emotional pull of her diary. On finding out a friend in the camp can’t read, she writes: “I promised to teach her after this. It felt good to make a promise again.” This reminds us responsibility and hope are equal commitments to the future. Barr proves, however, that the future has the power to reshape the past. He also reminds us the effects of time mean people living in the same place can inhabit different worlds. An outbreak of measles is something to be feared in Sarah’s squalid camp but it can be regarded as “quaint” by the time Willem’s grandmother has reached adulthood.

But time is almost too quaint itself, too neutral a concept if we think about it only in terms of measurement, to properly capture what Barr sets out to achieve. This is a book about time as the accumulation of experience, both personal and collective. Experience is the same as history and history is the things people do. This is a book about the things people do to each other.