Title: Blessed Assurance (review copy)
Author: Stewart Ennis
Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Subversive Fiction
Blurb from the Publisher
Blessed Assurance 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.
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.
Blessed Assurance 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.
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 carefully 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 well drawn and I found the whole feeling of the book to be rather mystical. 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.
*I was invited to read a PDF copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.*
Publishing date: 18th November 2019