I finished this book a little while ago and it’s been hanging around the edges of my mind ever since. Maybe, partly because Jacob Rees-Mogg was waxing lyrical about the Boer War the other day on Question Time
You Will Be Safe Hereby Damian Barr is a novel set in South Africa. It starts – after a brief prologue – at the turn of the twentieth century following Sarah van der Waat’s diary entries from her time in a concentration camp.
While very well written, it seems to bear little relation to the character of Willem, a young boy who appears in the prologue based in 2010.
As part one gives way to part two, we jumped forward to 1976, and we meet a new character, a young woman named Rayna. Again, very well written, very engaging, but her story of her family life and her marriage has seemingly no connection with Willem.
I was enjoying it, but there was a niggling voice at the back of my head that was asking ‘where is this going?’ – which actually made the read more enjoyable.
I read hundreds of books and with most of them I have a fair idea of where it is going, I’m pretty good at spotting twists, but this is unlike anything I’ve read in a long time.
And that’s because this isn’t a book about Willem, or Sarah or Rayna. This is a book about war and nationalism.
The effects of the Boer War – fondly looked back on by the likes of Rees-Mogg as the last gentleman’s war – had and continue to have a lasting impact on South Africa.
There’s a quote on the back of the copy I read from Diana Athill that says‘You come out of reading it a different person from when you went in’, while another, from Alex Preston reads ‘A book that will change the way you see the world’.
I highlight these two particular quotes because they manage to sum up exactly how I feel, in perhaps a more eloquent way than I ever could. I knew nothing about the Boer war – apart from Corporal Jones in Dad’s Army who claimed that ‘they do not like it up ‘em, sir’.
I didn’t know a huge amount about South Africa. I didn’t realise it was the British who basically invented concentration camps – perhaps not the gas chambers of Hitler’s war – but the British army was responsible for a huge amount of deaths in that country.
I’m angry that I didn’t know about this. It’s because history is written by the victors and the Empire as it was saw it a great victory. It’s not, it’s a shameful period of our country’s history and should be recognised as such. It should be taught in schools, alongside both World Wars. We should grow up knowing that we’re not always the heroes.
I did know that. Of course I knew that. But this is perhaps the first time I truly know what that means.
One last word before I go, and it’s another quote from the back cover – this time, from Patrick Gale: ‘Astonishing’.
You Will Be Safe Here by Damian Barr will by published by Bloomsbury on the 4thApril.