Inspired, of course, by Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat, but updated and given a gender twist, Three Women and a Boat is a feminist book. All three of the women characters (four, including a young friend) are out in the world without being beholden to, or reliant on men. They’re complete. There are men around, but the story is not about their relationships, but the women themselves. And there’s a dog like the one in Jerome’s version, who sparks some of the action, as dogs tend to do.
Anastasia has lived most of her life on a canal barge. But she’s ill, needs to take a break for treatments and is looking for someone to take her boat, The Number One, north to the yards in Uxbridge to get overhauled.
Enter Eve and Sally. This is beautifully set up. The guts of the story starts with them walking down a tow path from opposite directions and colliding at Anastasia’s boat to hear a dog yelping. There’s a couple of quick and contrived back stories about why each woman finds herself exactly in the position to be able, and grateful, to accept the proposal of this total stranger to take charge of the canal boat mission. It doesn’t matter: the fact is, they both accept, embark, and spend the next six weeks meandering northwards; learning about the craft of narrow boat navigation, how to work locks, how to get on with one another in the small space and how to enjoy the long, free days on the canals.
The women are quite different, but their friendship grows, as often happens, through shared tasks, invented rituals, working together and giving the other space. They meet members of the community who live on the canals: beautiful young Trompette and her dopey boyfriend Billy who tells fabulous stories and who Trompette is trying, and failing, to save. There is the canal haunting Arthur, connected in some way to Anastasia, who comes along for the ride but makes the women uneasy. A boat restorer joins them at some point and fits in naturally, a canal man to his soul. Anastasia isn’t in many scenes but she is at the heart of the story, her diagnosis and needs become the ‘why’ of what they do. She’s pretty stroppy – independent, yes, but not sure she had to be quite so mean with everyone. I guess she adds a bit of contrived grit to a story that is otherwise too nice. She joins them aboard, before treatment, for a stretch on the water, and begrudgingly approves of the way Sally and Eve are caring for her boat.
Mostly the book is about choices. Big things, like what you might do with your life, what makes you happy, and why is it is good to take some time out, sometimes, and meander up a river dreaming. If you empty your mind of the clutter, Youngson seems to be saying, you can fill it with more pleasant things.
There’s a neat ending, all is good with the world, so I guess the premise works. Even reading about time spent wandering the canals can make you happy. An unchallenging read that follows a well-trodden, traditional path.