Delightful novels of pilgrimage

Review: Vivien Horler

Three Women and a Boat, by Anne Youngson (Doubleday)

The Funny Thing about Norman Foreman, by Julietta Henderson (Bantam Press)

Two novels about what are essentially pilgrimages, but which are very different in their approach.

I loved Three Women and a Boat, although, like a narrowboat cruise on England’s canals, not much happens. I have had several canal holidays, and they are slow, beautiful, with just enough activity to keep you moving, but essentially wonderfully relaxing.

There is a strict speed limit on the canals – you’re not allowed to create a breaking wash – which means you travel at walking pace, about 5kmh. Once, after we’d been chugging along for about three days, we had a small mechanical problem and had to call the boatyard; they were with us in 20 minutes.

In this novel elderly Anastasia lives on a narrowboat, the Number One, but is ill and needs life-saving surgery. Trouble is, she is in London but the Number One needs to get to Chester in the north of England for an overhaul.

She meets two women on the towpath: Eve, who has resigned from a 30-year corporate career to have a new life, and Sally, who has just left her husband and grown-up children. Both women are at a loose end while they ponder their futures, and they agree to take the Number One north, along with Anastasia’s dog Noah.

It doesn’t matter that neither has any experience with narrowboats or canals – as anyone who has hired one knows, the boatyard staff will see you through your first lock and then you’re on your own.

England’s canals preceded the railways and were used to move goods around the country. The problem of getting loaded boats over hills was solved by tunnels and an ingenious system of locks.

The advent of the much speedier railways meant the canals fell into disuse, but in the past 50 years or so they have been repurposed for leisure and tourism.

On their way Eve and Sally get to know each other as well as some strange and wonderful people who call the canals home, like Trompette who makes her own clothes, her partner who is a storyteller with something of a drug problem, and Arthur who moves in for a few days.

There is a lot of chat and some wise musing on things like jigsaw puzzles – always buy them from a charity shop, then until the last moment you won’t know if all the pieces are there; the pleasure of knitting; a lot about food and cooking, and the pleasure of being close to nature.

Eve and Sally discover some secrets, learn how to be independent, and eventually decide on new directions in life. A wonderful book that was shortlisted for the Costa Book Award.

The Funny Thing about Norman Foreman also involves a journey north, from Penzance in Cornwall to Edinburgh. Norman is a 12-year-old boy whose best friend Jax has just diedin an asthma attack.

Jax was the funny one, the naughty one, the inventive one, while Norman is the straight guy, devastated by his loss. The pair had planned to secure a gig at the Edinburgh Fringe when they were 15, but now Norman is left without his collaborator.

His grief break his mother Sadie’s heart, and when she realises Norman wants to go to the Fringe, now, to produce a one-night tribute show for Jax, she agrees to take him. He is also keen to find his father, who Sadie says could have been one of four chaps she had a fling with in a devastating period of loss when she was at university.

So off they go, driven by the elderly Leonard in his Austen. Leonard has taken on board not only Norman’s desire to do the tribute show, he also tracks down the addresses of the four guys who might be Norman’s dad, and they take a long and winding road to Edinburgh.

On the way Norman practises the jokes he and Jax worked on, and it is immediately clear to Sadie that without Jax, Norman isn’t much good. She is torn between wanting to help him achieve his goal, and fearing that he will be bitterly hurt if – or when – he bombs.

Eventually they reach Edinburgh and then Leonard goes missing and Norman has an adventure helping a man, who just might be his father, wreak havoc on a crooked casino owner.

The novel is a touch on the sentimental side – Sadie is forever contemplating how little Norman is, when he’s 12, for heaven’s sake – but it’s a charming read.

And again, the pilgrimage helps several people to change their lives and move on.


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