‘Blessed Assurance’ by Stewart Ennis – ARC Book Review

Blurb from Vagabond Voices website

“The fact of the matter is Joseph Kirkland was afraid. Afraid of not being Saved. Afraid of being Saved. Afraid of the transformation that would occur the moment he uttered those words, Jesus! God! I want you to come into my heart!”

Blessed Assurance is a coming of age novel. 

It is set against the backdrop of a small close-knit evangelical community in the fictional Scottish village of Kilhaugh one fog bound December in the late nineteen sixties when the Cold War was on the brink of turning hot. 

The story takes place over six soul searching days in the life of God-fearing dog-thief and pyromaniac, 11 year-old Joseph Kirkland, and his godless, devil-may-care best friend, Archie Truman, as the perpetually guilt-ridden Joseph attempts to put right what he believes to be the most terrible of lies. 

It is peopled with colourful characters, peppered with moments of tenderness, tragedy and occasional surreal humour. 

At its heart though, Blessed Assurance is an exploration of family, friendship, faith, loneliness and grief, and the compromises that sometimes have to be made to remain part of our community.

My Review

Blessed Assurance‘ is the debut novel by Stewart Ennis that is to be published on November 18th, 2019 by Vagabond Voices, a small independent Scottish publishers. 

I was approached to read this book on Twitter and really didn’t know what kind of book I was getting into when I agreed to read this ARC copy. But I must say that I’m very pleased that I took a chance on this unknown author as ‘Blessed Assurance’ is a most fascinating piece of literature.

The novel is set in a fictionalised Scottish village sometime during the late 1960s and tells the story of eleven year old Joseph Kirkland and his desire to be “saved” from eternal damnation. 

Joseph lives with his grandparents with his grandmother being the very dominant personality in the house. She is an incredibly devout God-fearing woman and has instilled in Joseph the belief that he needs to somehow be “saved” from the fiery powers of hell that are ever present in day to day life. This leads to Joseph being very much of an almost nervous disposition and creates a young character that is too consumed by guilt for one so young as he tries to figure out what it really means to let God into his heart and be saved. 

With a storyline as such, the book invariably is filled with a lot of religious imagery and allegorical moments as young Joseph tries to reconcile his guilt-ridden conscience with his desires to be a wild and free child, motivated only by the innocence of youth. His imagination is very powerful and the simple everyday occurrences of village life take on deeper meaning through Joseph’s eyes as he constantly envisions the battle waged over his soul between the forces of good and evil. 

The novel juxtaposes Joseph’s spiritual trials with that of the trials of living in a difficult family home that belong to his best friend Archie Truman. And it is really when exploring the friendship of these two boys that Ennis’ writing prowess is at the height of its strength. Both Joseph and Archie were incredibly easy to empathise with and their unassuming friendship really provided the heart of this novel. It was when he was in the company of Archie, and Archie’s younger sister, that Joseph truly came alive and it became all the more apparent that his worries about being saved were slowly consuming him to his detriment. In many respects this is a coming of age style novel that illustrates how children have to learn who they truly are as people separate from their primary caregivers and Joseph in the main role is truly a character that feels both authentic and timeless.

The novel included an interesting cast of supporting characters from the village that all somehow impacted on Joseph’s view of himself and in their own unique ways they helped Joseph mould himself into the person. From his Auntie Abi to the travelling Caleb each character felt well crafted and flitted perfectly in and out of Joseph’s little world. I particularly liked the character of Caleb and how his presence was used to challenge problematic stereotypes that pervaded at that time. 

One word of caution regarding content: due to the time period and the ignorance of such there is frequent use of terminology that could be construed as offensive to The Travelling Community. I believe that it is reasonable within the context of the novel but it would be remiss of me not to mention it.

My favourite supporting character had to be Joseph’s grandfather. He was a man in poor health throughout the novel but whenever he and Joseph had scenes together it always warmed my heart. I loved the simple pleasures and jokes shared between the two characters and how their relationship actually helped to really humanise Joseph’s grandmother. This was because when Joseph and his grandfather giggled together (or similar) it provoked a loving response in his grandmother which illustrated that she was capable of being more than just a stereotypical God-fearing and zealot type woman. 

My one minor quibble with the novel stems from my not being Scottish. In the book a Scottish dialect is frequently used by some of the characters (the missionary in particular) and there were times I found it a little too hard to understand and it took me out of the story too much. But that is very much a personal preference as something similar annoyed me when reading the classic Wuthering Heights!

However, I soon found that if I recited those passages out loud to myself I was able to feel more present with both the story and the characters, and was able to understand the Scottish dialect more easily (it really is just a case of heavily accented phonetics). 

Overall this was a beautifully crafted novel that kept me engaged with an interesting and thought provoking storyline.

I enjoyed how the book explored the topics of faith and community, but yet did not produce any conclusions regarding such and allowed the reader draw their own judgements.

The characters I thought were beautifully drawn and I found the whole feeling of the book to be one of almost mystical beauty. 

I would recommend this book to people who enjoy literary fiction that is heavily influenced by local culture and attitudes. And to those who like to support the unsullied craft of first time novelists and independent publishers. 

Four out of five stars

*I was invited to read a PDF copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.*

About the Author (from Vagabond Voices website)

Born in Bridge of Weir in 1961, Stewart Ennis began his career as a journalist and a nurse, but now works as a writer, actor, lecturer and occasional photographer. He was a founding member of the acclaimed Benchtours theatre ensemble with whom he created many touring shows throughout the nineties and noughties. For several years he was creative writing lecturer at HMP Shotts and other Scottish prisons and is currently working with Vagabond Voices on an anthology of prison writing. He’s had short stories and poems published in Gutter Magazine, The Curlew (Wales), The Caterpillar (Ireland) and various other anthologies. He was an early recipient of a Playwright Studio Scotland Ignite award and has written a number of works for theatre including, The Darkroom, Robert Burns’ Celtic Complex, One Straight Line, The Taking of Zena Charbonne, and The Monster and Mary Shelley. In 2019 he was awarded the Aberdeen-Curtin Alliance scholarship to study a PhD within the creative departments of Aberdeen University and Curtin University, Perth, Australia. Blessed Assurance (Vagabond Voices, 2019) is his first novel.

Other Advanced Praise for ‘Blessed Assurance’

“Stewart Ennis’s debut novel hovers constantly between comedy and tragedy. Small town Scotland is seen in perceptive detail through the eyes of an eleven year old boy. Characters, like his fundamentalist Gran, like the unforgettable itinerant preacher, Benjamin Mutch, leap into our heads and take us over. Steeped in matters of faith and rejection the book offers a rare and fascinating glimpse into a past world which makes you turn the pages in a quest for answers.”

Bernard MacLaverty

“This is the writer I always dreamed of finding – a born stylist with a story as intimate and vast as all creation. Ennis is the Scottish James Joyce.”

Meg Rosoff

Relevant Links and Information:

Publishing date: 18th November 2019

Publisher: Vagabond Voices

Preorder link: click here

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