‘Write what you know’ is the clichéd advice meted out to many aspiring authors. While Damian Barr’s Eighties memoir Maggie & Me (2013) indicated that the young Scotsman may have taken the suggestion to heart, You Will Be Safe Here, his first novel, sees him change course.
Set in South Africa in different periods, the book teases out unexpected connections between two tragic stories. The first concerns Sarah van der Watt and her son, forcibly evicted from their farm in the Orange Free State by the British during the Second Boer War and detained by them in Bloemfontein in one of the first ever concentration camps. The second deals with the equally terrible rite of passage experienced by Willem, an effeminate, bookish sixteen-year-old Afrikaans boy, in the recent past, when his mother and her fiancé, Jan, decide on a radical path to toughen him up and, implicitly, straighten him out