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You Will be Safe Here by Damian Barr

You Will be Safe Here by Damian Barr
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In this “polished and harrowing” first novel, “two South African stories unfold a century apart”, said Hephzibah Anderson in The Observer. In 1901, during the Second Boer War, Sarah van der Watt, a Boer farmer’s wife, is sent with her young son to a British internment camp. More than 100 years later, Willem Brandt, a troubled 16-year-old, is despatched by his family to a paramilitary training camp, on the basis that it will toughen him up. Both strands have been “extensively researched” (the latter is inspired by a teenager’s 2011 death at a similar camp), but Barr wears his learning lightly and maintains a “subtle emotional intelligence” throughout – especially during the brutal ending, which deals with the effects of homophobic violence.

Although a link between the stories emerges at the end, there’s a sense that they don’t quite “pull together”, said Antonia Senior in The Times. The novel’s theme – that “brutality fathers brutality” – isn’t “strong or novel enough to supply the missing cohesion”. Barr, however, is a “natural storyteller”, and the individual parts are very moving. This is a “searing debut”.

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