Stewart Ennis on Blessed Assurance
Blessed Assurance is a coming-of-age novel - set against the backdrop of a small close-knit religious community in the fictional Scottish village of Kilhaugh one fogbound December in the late sixties. The story takes place over six soul-searching days in the life of God-fearing dog-thief and pyromaniac, eleven-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. The book explores ideas of family, friendship, faith and grief, and the compromises that have to be made to remain part of a community.
I was a little thrown when asked to discuss the themes of the book. Themes were not really something I was conscious of in the process of writing it. Rather, I had a story in my head – with a clear ending, thankfully – and I sort of allowed the story to meander its way towards that end in the only way I felt able. That said, looking at it now, I can of course see certain themes, motifs and obsessions recurring throughout. Identity, belonging, grief, guilt, friendship, family, faith, otherness, ideas of salvation. They’re all there, over and over again. Maybe too much, I don’t know. At one point the book was going to be called The Saving of Joseph Kirkland, which summed up the book quite neatly. Perhaps too neatly.
Yes, questions of identity crop up. Being part of such a small tight community, Joseph’s sense of who he is ought to feel solid and well defined. But in fact for much of the story, he seems lost, disorientated, without anchor. He is – sometimes literally – trying on different costumes, searching and fumbling. And soon, with the arrival of a thick fog, so is everyone in their own way.
It is a very Scottish book in many ways. I wanted to capture a specific sense of time and place as truthfully as I could. The language of the novel feels quite important to me. Although Joseph’s religious life, lies at the centre of the book, the language is not – with the exception of his grandmother quoting scripture – “ecclesiastical”. These are, for the most part, ordinary Scottish people, not theologians. There are also a couple of sections – those concerned with the itinerant ex-prisoner-missionary Benjamin Mutch – that I’ve written in Scots, but elsewhere I’ve tried to capture truthfully the particular flavour, the idioms, speech patterns, the dry, dour humour, the self-consciousness, and the absurdities – of a small working-class West of Scotland village of that period.
I think it’s quite important that Joseph is the age that he is. At eleven years old, he does not have much agency. He is on the perimeter of various transitions. One is the transition into adulthood, over which he has no real choice. The other, a transition into full participation within his religious community, is a choice, and one that Joseph has been avoiding. He has been told countless times that the moment he “asks Jesus into his heart” he will no longer be the person that he was, that he will be transformed. The prospect of such a transformation terrifies him. What will the new Joseph Kirkland be like, feel like? Will he be recognizable to others, and even to himself? But if he does not make this choice then he has been assured that he faces the very real prospect of eternal damnation. What can he do? Joseph is not yet old enough to reject it all and run away. Anyway, where would he run to? Everyone in his family is part of the faith. His uncle is the preacher. His aunt is the organist. His grandmother makes the bread for the breaking of bread. This is his whole world.
Joseph lies that he has been “saved.” But when his grandmother makes arrangements for a full immersion baptism the following week, Joseph becomes consumed with fear that something terrible will happen to himself or to those around him as retribution for this lie. He decides to turn the lie around. He has one week to become genuinely saved. He desperately tries to do this, often in quite outrageous ways, but everything from the fog that has suddenly descended, to his grandpa’s budgie flying away, seems to be either a test, a punishment or a portent of the catastrophic events to come.
It was important for me to treat Joseph’s concerns seriously, respectfully, to get inside his fear, rather than simply comment on it. I imagine some people who read this book will be coming from a secular place or at least from a less rigid form of faith than the one Joseph Kirkland belongs to. Despite it being a way of life that might seem strange to some, I have tried not to make Joseph’s grandmother and the others in his religious community in any way monstrous or ridiculous. They are all doing what they feel is best for Joseph, all coming from a place of love, albeit one that is framed within a particular, austere faith world. For Joseph’s grandmother, the fires of hell are not any kind of metaphor, but rather a real place of eternal damnation. It is perfectly understandable then that she should be tormented and so terrified for her grandson’s soul that she cannot sleep at night.
Joseph is of course part of the wider community of Kilhaugh village, with its shameful secrets and prejudices, and it’s clearly stratified up-the-hill and down-the-hill society. The story is essentially an odyssey, peopled with characters, some colourful, some dark. There is Benjamin Mutch, who Joseph attempts to emulate, the sadistic headmaster, Mister Brunstane, the smoke-filled bookshop of Mister Mallison and the fur clad Mrs Arnold who is strangely fixated on Joseph. There are the ancient firework-loving Hindoo Twins, the priest Father Giordano from the out of bounds Catholic church, St Rita of Impossible Things and the cowboy writer Zachary T Mayfield, whose western novels, form a mini-story within the story and which Joseph guiltily reads to his beloved, bedridden grandfather. All of these characters play a part in Joseph’s six-day journey through calamities, great and small, towards what he hopes will be salvation. Another who features highly in Joseph’s life is his adored teacher Miss o’ Donnell, who after a lesson on cartography encourages Joseph to create his own personal Mappa Mundi. And then there is the mysterious Caleb, a man living on the fringes of village society, a true outsider. It is with Caleb that Joseph – also an outsider – begins to feel a real sense of connection and belonging, another recurring theme. The warm heart in the freezing fog is Joseph’s unsanctioned friendship with Archie Truman (from right down at the bottom hill) and his six-year-old sister wee Maggie who loves Joseph. Archie is very much a counterpoint to Joseph. He is the Huckleberry Finn to Joseph’s Tom Sawyer. Where Joseph is full of tentativeness, trepidation and mindful of his p’s and q’s, Archie is all instinct, fearlessness and profanity. Archie would do anything for his friend. Archie does the dangerous things that Joseph dare not do. Archie sins so that Joseph doesn’t have to. And there is also something of the Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn in their wanderings through Kilhaugh in the fog, all the while Joseph trying desperately to remain good and become saved, while Archie – without trying – leads him astray in all manner of ways, such as supplying him with stolen goods and feeding his pyromania.
At eleven years old, there is still so much about the adult world that is beyond Joseph’s understanding. However he is acutely aware of mood and atmosphere. There is much fear and anxiety in the air. 1969. The cold war is still at its iciest. There is a very real fear among grown-ups that a “hot” nuclear war could happen at any time. Meetings are arranged in the village hall to inform villagers what to do in such an eventuality. This is very much there in the background, in the snatches of adult whisperings that Joseph hears as he passes by in the fog, and in the war games that he and Archie play out. There is a sense among the grown-ups that time may running out, which may explain Joseph’s grandmother’s desperate desire to see her grandson save himself while he still can.