The Narrowboat Summer by Anne Youngson


Having read Anne Youngson’s book Meet Me at the Museum, I looked to this one for a kindly, gently-told tale. And it filled that bill admirably.

As in the case with the Museum book, the characters are mature (not elderly) adults who make a change in their lives or have an unexpected change come their way. In this case a 50-something woman who has worked successfully in the corporate world loses her job and a woman with two grown children decides she wants to leave her marriage. The two converge on the towpath of a canal and meet an older woman who travels the canals of England in her narrowboat. It transpires that the older woman has cancer and needs an operation just at the time her narrowboat needs to be taken for repairs. Eve and Sally, though they’ve never operated a boat or worked the locks, agree to take on this good deed for Anastasia.

I have never been a boat person, still, the romance of traveling through rural Britain on canals built beginning in 1790 is not lost on me. They were built to move goods quickly and cheaply at the outset of the Industrial Revolution, but within years they were superseded by roadways and trains. Even now there are 5000 miles of navigable canals in the UK and the people traveling them are a community.

While Sally managed the boat down the staircase, Owen joined the men on the side, chatting, lending a hand. Another man strolled past and stopped, had a word or two. These were not random encounters with strangers, Sally realized. This was a community of people connected, in one way or another, with the canals.

The “canal life” is the central theme which gives the characters time to mull over various random ideas. One of these topics came up in our coffee group recently, the desire to win at games, in the context of playing board games with children. Sally says she enjoys a game whether she wins or not, especially in the case of games of skill. She says adults don’t mind losing at Snakes and Ladders or other games of chance and asks another character if he agrees. “I mind,” said Arthur. “Good game, boring game, hard game or simple game, outcome a lottery or outcome a result of skill, tactics, cunning moves and blocking maneuvers. I want to win.” I remember that I loved bridge best when the best hand got the bid and made it beautifully. Clearly I misunderstand bridge and winning.

Another concept they mull over relates to innovation. Eve tells about a little research she did on innovation and read of a theory about the border between chaos and order. On one side of a line everything is known and understood, on the other “a soup of possibilities so far from the known order of things we can’t possibly grasp them.” Spending time on the line between the two creates the possibility of picking out patterns on the chaos side and bringing them to the “order” side of the line. She and Sally agree they are on that border in their lives and that they should not be in a rush to create definitions that would eliminate possibilities.

There are plot developments relating to Anastasia and her connections to others on the canal and Eve and Sally’s next chapters that are pleasant and held my interest. But mainly I will remember the book for its measured pace and meandering thoughts on random ideas.

Anne Youngson, The Narrowboat Summer, Flatiron Books, 2021, 319 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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