Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson

“Does being grown up mean we are all doomed to be ordinary?”

One of my favorite things about where I live is the opportunity to walk along the Kennet & Avon canal, which runs by the bottom of our garden. Just a 10-minute stroll on the towpath takes us into Newbury’s town center, but someone with more time and motivation could take the canal all the way from London to Bristol. We have a small population of permanent boat dwellers beside one of the bridges, but many more vessels pass through or moor up for a night or a week. Even more so than gazing through a lit house window on a dark, cold night, looking at canal-boats sparks my imagination, making me wonder what life is like for the people (and cats) who live on them. How do they store everything, especially books??

My curiosity about canal living and my love for Meet Me at the Museum (2018), Anne Youngson’s charming, bittersweet debut novel in letters between a farmer’s wife in England and a curator at the Denmark museum that houses the Tollund Man, were two strong motives to request her follow-up; a third was the title’s nod to the delightful Victorian classic Three Men in a Boat (although, for its 2021 U.S. release, it has been renamed The Narrowboat Summer; Jerome K. Jerome must be too niche a reference for the average American reader.)

On a towpath not far from London, two women are drawn to the Number One by the sound of a dog howling. Eve Warburton has just been made redundant after 30 years at a corporate job, and Sally Allsop has just decided to leave her impassive husband. Distressed at the animal’s unearthly cries, they break down the boat door to check on it and it promptly runs away. Luckily, it’s not long until the boat owner, Anastasia, returns, followed by Noah the terrier.

Anastasia is a no-nonsense woman but takes kindly to Eve and Sally. Her situation is thus: she needs to go into hospital soon for cancer treatment, but she has no money for moorings or necessary repairs on the Number One, her only home. She needs someone to pilot her boat to Chester, where she knows someone who will carry out the maintenance for free, and back. Conveniently, Eve and Sally, free of the commitments that once defined them, now have all the time in the world. Anastasia will live in Eve’s flat during her treatment. In a matter of days, Eve and Sally learn the basics about canal-boats and set off on their journey. Along the way they’ll meet drifters, craftspeople and storytellers, and rethink what they want from life.

Youngson perches halfway between Rachel Joyce and Carol Shields in this one. Much like Meet Me at the Museum, it’s about second chances in the second half of life, with relatable situations and an open, hopeful ending. I liked the details of the journey – makeshift meals, Scrabble games, transcripts of blunt phone calls with Anastasia – but Eve and Sally remained a bit blank for me, such that I did not care equally about all the protagonists’ fates. Still, this is a pleasant amble of a novel and one that I expect to be popular with my local book club. (See also: Susan’s review.)

A favorite passage:

Anyone can use the canal, for holidays, for living, for plying a trade. They’ve always been a bit alternative. An alternative to a horse and cart, then an alternative to a railway, then an alternative to a caravan holiday, an alternative to a house. I like that. I like that it’s not fixed. No one owns it. And I like that it is slow, which is exactly what made the search for alternatives essential. The canals were wide enough to cope with a boat moving at the walking pace of a horse. Any faster, and they break apart. That’s the only thing that needs to be preserved: the banks, the locks, the bridges. And what would destroy them is speed.

Three Women and a Boat was published in the UK by Doubleday on November 12th. My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.

It will be published as The Narrowboat Summer in the USA by Flatiron Books on January 26, 2021.

14 responses

  1. Thanks for the link, Rebecca. I read this one when I was in dire need of a comfort read earlier in the year and it hit the spot. I’ll think of you next time I walk along the towpath in Bath through which the Kennet and Avon also runs.

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    1. It was a little too far toward the Rachel Joyce/twee end of things for me, but I did enjoy it and will pass it around my book club. I’m sure the others will love it.

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  2. I loved living near the Kennet and Avon canal, and my sister has investigated living in a canal boat, but never actually done it!

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    1. Afloat: A Memoir by Danie Couchman might give a more complete picture than this novel! I think for people who are minimalist, it would be a really interesting thing to at least try.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. How lovely that you live by the canal. My friend Claire and I are a bit obsessed with looking at house details that give onto our local ones – they don’t come up for sale too often but we love looking at the different ways they deal with the bit of their garden right by the canal (some seem to ignore it: how??). I don’t fancy this book but it’s nice it exists, if that makes any sense at all!

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    1. They go through Birmingham in the novel. (I have my spare proof copy on its way in a big parcel to you at the moment as I thought it was one you’d enjoy, but feel free to pass it on if you don’t get on with it.) We rent and are lucky to be able to afford this property as the house is shabby and needs lots done. We’re neither house-proud nor gifted at DIY, so it suits us well enough, though eventually we’ll probably get fed up of the mice and the damp. The canal end of our long garden is very wild, whereas others have gorgeous vegetable beds or hand-built summerhouses. Our stretch of the towpath always attracts lots of interest from passing walkers and boaters.

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      1. Oh, dear, that’s a bit embarrassing – I will of course give it a go and it’s lovely that they go through Birmingham of course. I was worried about the “blunt phone calls” but I know you know my medical limits and wouldn’t send anything horrible. And I have the parcel! Whee! Am I allowed to open it? I love seeing all the different styles of garden going down to the canal when running along the other side, I don’t love it when people just fence it off with no way to get through and watch the water and towpath!

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    2. Please do open it! Consider it birthday/Christmas. There’s very little medical detail at all in the Youngson. I think it’s eventually made clear what type of cancer she has, but nothing more than that. The bluntness is more to do with Anastasia being completely unsentimental. She’s a great character.

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      1. Oh that’s fine then! I knew you wouldn’t horrify me with detail!

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  4. I think I’ll give this one a go when I get the chance – I am drawn towards more comforting reads during this pandemic!

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    1. It’ll be out in the USA in late January. I think you’d enjoy it!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a fun title. I learned about the Jerome K. Jerome book via an American writer, Connie Willis. But I didn’t find it quite as hilarious as I was meant to (and maybe I read it in the wrong frame of mind).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I adore To Say Nothing of the Dog! It’s better than the Jerome original.

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