Two years ago, looking for something easy to read after a tree root tripped me up landing me with a nasty headache, I picked up Anne Youngson’s first novel, Meet Me at the Museum, having previously dismissed it thinking it looked too schmaltzy for me. It turned out to be one of the best books I read that year. Unsurprisingly, then, hopes were high for Three Women and a Boat. Youngson’s second novel unites three very different women – each unknown to the other when it begins, each at a difficult stage in their lives – and takes them on a journey.
Having told her husband that she’s leaving him, Sally is walking along the canal towpath not far from her house in Uxbridge. In the opposite direction walks Eve, sacked that morning from her project manager job at an engineering firm. As these two converge, an unholy racket emanates from a narrowboat. After a brief discussion, they identify the noise as a dog, possibly in distress. Eve breaks in and Noah dashes out just as his owner, Anastasia, arrives. By the time they’ve finished their coffee on board the Number One, Eve and Sally have agreed to take the boat from Uxbridge to Chester for repairs while Anastasia has a tumour removed. Preparations are made, training given and Anastasia installed in Eve’s flat before Eve and Sally, narrowboat novices both, set off with Noah on board. As they navigate their four-month journey, telling each other their stories, bumping into people with fond memories of the taciturn, brusque woman they’ve left in Uxbridge and forming friendships with some of them, each of them changes, sometimes in unexpected ways.
As so many disappointed debut-readers know, second novels often fall flat. I was a little apprehensive that this one might, too, given the premise which felt a wee bit improbable to me for the first few pages but then it took off and I found myself loving it. Youngson explores themes of interconnectedness, the possibility of transformation and kindness with wit and thoughtfulness through a very pleasing cast of characters, particularly apt for this strange pandemic year. Eve and Sally are the antithesis of each other: one caught up in a successful career, relishing living alone, until suddenly it stops; the other living a life in which she feels stuck, constantly fulfilling everyone else’s needs. It would have been be easy for both to become stereotypical single career woman v. wife characters but Youngson is much too skilled for that, depicting both women with perception and warmth. Her novel is also a love letter to storytelling and canals, both rolled together in Billy’s star turns on the evening towpath holding his audience spellbound with tall tales and history. How lovely to read a second novel that lives up to the promise of the first.
Doubleday: London 9780857527097 336 pages Hardback