Damien Barr – You Will Be Safe Here

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It’s strange to read about a character who is of the same generation as me (though slightly younger), has the same references from childhood when it comes to books, movies and music, has similar dreams and aspirations, and yet exists in a completely different world from my own. Willem’s mother and step-father won’t accept him as he is and his mother lets his step-father dictate how her son should be treated, with some devastating consequences. Bullying people who, for whatever reason, are different is not a problem exclusive to South Africa, but I hope this kind of brutal force used to change people into what society thinks they should be, is a rarity.

Willem’s story doesn’t only highlight prejudice and bullying, but it also touches upon South African history and culture, which I know embarrassingly little about. We are introduced to English savagery during The Second Boer War, when they took everything from those opposing them, slaughtered their animals, burned their farms, left them with nothing and rounded them up in concentration camps. Sadly, the brutality of this first part of the novel is mirrored in the third (on a smaller scale), and it shows us how we seem to be unable to learn from our history, and how a wrong action can impact us and grow hatred that lingers on and on for generations.

The way these storylines came together was impressive and the last part left even more of a gut punch than I expected. In the novel, the author manages to portray the awful treatment of individual characters whilst at the same time creating a larger narrative about South African society today and how it is shaped not only by its history, but also by how its history is portrayed and the consequences of that. This book is likely to stay with me for some time, and it definitely made me want to learn more about South Africa’s past and present.

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