With Christmas hoving into view, we’ll be posting reviews of some of the best books of 2020, (a few of which have appeared in different versions elsewhere) and offering suggestions as to what to get the book lover in your life.
Sometimes a novel comes along which reminds you why you fell in love with books in the first place, one which delights in language, wrong foots you at many turns, and mixes the unusual with the familiar. They become part of your story, helping to make sense of your own experiences and the events which shape you.
Prime examples for me would be Iain Banks The Wasp Factory, Ali Smith’s The Accidental, George Friel’s Mr Alfred M.A., Gordon Legge’s The Shoe, Robin Jenkins’ Just Duffy, anything and everything by Alan Warner, more recently Graeme Armstrong’s The Young Team, and to those can be added Stewart Ennis’s Blessed Assurance.
It’s a coming-of-age novel, as many of those mentioned above are, which touches upon familiar themes of family life, friendship, guilt, and grief, and all are closely interwoven. Ennis uses the setting of Scottish village life that will be familiar to anyone who has read Sunset Song, The House With The Green Shutters, The Cone Gatherers, Annals of the Parish, or the Kailyard fiction that they were reacting against.
Raised in the fictional Kilhaugh, in the evangelical environs of his family, the eleven-year-old Joseph Kirkland is literally god-fearing, and worries that he won’t be able to live up to the expectations of God and his Gran, and not necessarily in that order.
He believes the world to be full of unjustified sinners, some of whom are members of his own family, and is looking for ways to avoid their fate and make sure he is SAVED. Luckily for Joseph he has a trusted side-kick and companion in Archie Truman to keep him just about sane, if not necessarily safe. With bullies, forbidden games, befriending strangers, and literally playing with fire, Ennis captures that sense of near-danger that accompanies childhood, where a wrong step or bad decision could end in tragedy.
Blessed Assurance strikes the perfect balance between black comedy and teenage melancholy. Imagine John Byrne had written Huckleberry Finn and you’ll have some idea as to the tone. Ennis embraces many Scottish literary tropes and traditions and twists them into something new and vibrant, creating unforgettable characters and making comment on an aspect of Scottish life which still pertains. Anyone who was brought up with religion in their lives will recognise the effects it can have on a young and vivid imagination.
Joseph, his Gran and Grandpa, Archie and his sister Maggie, the preacher Benjamin Mutch (who becomes a role-model for Joseph), the enigmatic Caleb, and many more, leave their mark on the reader, but it’s Ennis’s language, his wonderful use of Scots, which impresses most. There are words and phrases which help set the scenes and capture the time, place, and people. It makes each page a joy to read, and if you’re like me you’ll think about your own friends and family, and shared occasions and conversations across the ages and throughout your life. Stewart Ennis has written a novel which is truly relatable, and when was the last time you read one of those?