Every book we read could be considered a mini vacation if you really think about it. For just a few minutes we can take a break from thinking about work, family responsibilities, those piles of laundry and have a chance to experience another life, whether it’s one of a restauranteur, a bookseller or a woman who loves her chickens. In Three Women and a Boat by Anne Youngson the characters take a narrowboat journey along the canals of England and the book includes chapters named by destination. With a helpful map at the front, it could not have been easier to enjoy this mini vacation! I looked at the locations they visited on my phone a few times because some of the spots were so captivating – you might want to look up the ominous Blissworth Tunnel (it’s almost 3km long) or the exhausting Hatton ‘flight’ of locks too.
Their friendship begins when two strangers, Eve and Sally, hear a sound coming from a narrowboat as they are, separately, walking beside a London canal. After they ‘rescue’ a howling dog from the locked boat, they meet the owner, Anastasia. She forgives them for trespassing over a cup of tea on board the Number One, and they find their personalities blend well together. They also learn that their needs dovetail perfectly. Anastasia needs someone to pilot her home to a boatyard for repairs while she undergoes life-saving surgery, and the other two women are at a stage in their lives where a canal adventure is welcome.
Eve and Sally agree to take a weeks-long canal journey for the first time in their lives – together. Just before their meeting, Sally had begun the process of leaving her husband of several decades and Eve had quit her successful career of thirty years. They are realistic about the possibility of failure, with Anastasia suggesting the other two might find they are incompatible part-way through the trip, but having both made such big changes in their lives it’s just believable enough that life on a canal where the traffic moves at footspeed seems a reasonable risk.
Anastasia is a formidable woman, crusty and set in her ways, living on the boat alone for years. At first Sally and Eve defer to her because of her age and illness but their confidence with the boat builds after a few rocky days and one very complicated deck chair rescue. They enjoy the challenges of learning the craft of navigation and of finding their own way to live on board. The hours they spend slowly floating along allows them the time they need to consider their own next steps.
Eve sees that she is too young to retire and wants to find another direction for her career, and Sally realizes that her life doesn’t have to end even though her marriage has. Anastasia changes from the intimidating mystery she was at the beginning of the trip to a person they rely on and think of as an equal. Their circle of friends widens to include people they meet on the canal and this novel about three unlikely personalities becoming friends becomes more than the ‘uplifting read’ the publisher’s summary suggests.
Novels about female friendship tend to collect language like ‘affecting’ and ‘gentle’ like dust on a shelf and, of course, those words accurately describe Three Women and a Boat but the idyllic setting doesn’t mean the story is one to be dismissed. I admired the power of Anastasia’s choice to live a frugal life aboard a narrowboat and cheered as Eve and Sally made unpopular decisions (to say the least) they knew would improve their lives.
It was a pleasure to read a book where the answers to the problems of women in their middle age didn’t come from finding a partner. All three women had reached a point in their lives where they were facing change and they were able to source the solution through a connection to their community and their own resilience. Reading this book could cause feelings of introspection and wanderlust (factor in a few distracted moments to research your future narrowboat holiday) with the bonus that if you are looking for a gift for Mother’s Day, this is a worthy contender.
— Penny M.