Weekend Herald - Canvas
History’s painful lessons
YOU WILL BE SAFE HERE by Damian Barr (Bloomsbury Publishing, $33) South Africa is a country bursting with stories waiting to be told. Damian Barr’s debut novel opens at the height of the second Boer War, when the British and the Dutch fought for control of what later became South Africa but was then a collection of provinces that neither nation had any right to claim.
The British were losing against the stubborn and determined Dutch boers (farmers) who adopted a form of guerrilla warfare in the face of greater numbers; the English responded by burning down the farms, killing livestock and rounding up the fighters’ families.
Thousands of women and children were herded off to concentration camps and told, “You will be safe.” They weren’t of course, history tells us nearly 50,000 people died in the camps where typhoid, measles and malaria were rife. Avoiding overly graphic or emotional descriptions, Barr paints a very clear picture of the deplorable conditions in the camps.
His novel continues today through the eyes of a young man who struggles to fit into his world. Willem is only 16 but his bookish ways don’t sit well with his “man’s man” stepfather who, after an incident of bullying in which another student is badly injured, sends Willem to a boot camp to learn to harden up. He will be safe there, his worried mother is assured.
Scottish-born Barr had never been to South Africa before writing this book, explaining in the afterword that he was inspired by the true story of Raymond Buys, a 15-year-old boy who experienced a similar boot camp to the one Willem is sent to.
Barr lightly weaves the strands of history and politics through the generations well. While the focus in on white South Africans, black South Africans are not missing from Barr’s novel. Admittedly, they mainly play background roles but he drops in enough nuggets to remind us that they have a history here, too. The scene in the Boer War museum that Willem’s class visits on a school trip speaks volumes about the multilayers of South Africa’s history waiting to be uncovered and told.
From the outside looking in, it is impossible to understand how apartheid could have even been conceived, let alone nurtured into the monstrously destructive beast it became. Barr’s novel doesn’t offer any answers around such vexed questions or even try to. Instead, he uses South Africa’s turmoil as the backdrop to an intergenerational story that shows one doesn’t only have to remember history to avoid repeating it but must also understand it. HER HUSBAND’S MISTAKE by Sheila O’flanagan (Hachette, $30)
Roxy has been happily married to her childhood sweetheart for 20 years and they have two children but life as they all know it changes when she comes home unexpectedly to find her husband in bed with the neighbour — the day after her dad’s funeral, no less. What ensues is a rather slow-paced read focusing on how Roxy juggles her husband, young family, inherited job and newly widowed mum — who makes this story. I’m grateful I’m a fast reader, otherwise the middle third of the book, spent getting to know Roxy’s clients, would have felt much too long. Overall, it’s a likeable but predictable read with relatable characters and a satisfying ending.
THE TIGER CATCHER by Paullina Simons (Harpercollins, $37) Paullina Simons wrote my all-time favourite book (The Bronze Horseman) but the arrival of this book also caused much excitement because it’s the first of a trilogy, all of which will be released this year. Simons had high expectations to meet; things started well with Julian planning to find his love, who we soon learn is Josephine, an actress he has seen on stage and whom he fell in love with in two pages. To attempt to summarise the plot would be to give too much away but this story is filled with love, time-travel, grief and angst, all beautifully written with the mesmerising prose Simons is known for. However — and it’s a big however — there’s not enough emotion. The relationship was jumpy; Josephine feels superficial and Julian selfish in his obsession for her. I’ll read book two in the hope I feel more for these characters and become as invested in them as I’d expected and I’ll still recommend The Tiger Catcher (particularly to Outlander fans) but perhaps wait for the first two books of the trilogy and read them one after the other.
EVVIE DRAKE STARTS OVER by Linda Holmes (Hachette, $38)
If this novel wants you to take one message away, it is, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Don’t assume, don’t stereotype and don’t gossip, because all is often not what it seems. Evvie is leaving her emotionally abusive husband when he dies in a car accident. As she begins to deal with her new widowed life, she is faced with a new and organic kind of romance, written with humour and warmth that doesn’t feel forced — refreshing for a rom-com — but very real, and it’s not as everybody else would have expected. I loved that Evvie is a character who feels like a real person you’d want to befriend. It’s an enjoyable light read.
THE EX by Nicola Moriarty (Harpercollins, $35) Georgia, Luke and his ex-girlfriend Cadence are at the centre of this captivating and suspenseful love triangle. Georgia thought she had finally met