For Better, for Worse, by Damian and Siobhan Horner (Phoenix)
Mostly I review shiny new books because I’m in the lucky position of being sent them, and I’m genuinely grateful.
But every now and then I come across a book that’s been around for a while and reading it is a bit like a holiday, a book that I don’t have to review.
For Better, for Worse is one of them. And here I am reviewing it after all.
It was published in 2009, and I bought it secondhand, but it is still available on Amazon.
The subtitle is “One family, one boat. And one brand new life”.
Damian and Shiv (it helps to know Siobhan is pronounced Shivonne) live in London with their two children under two, Noah and India. Damian’s a hotshot in advertising, Shiv was a marketing journalist specialising in travel, but is now a fulltime mum.
They have plenty of money and a comfortable life but, eish, something is missing. Damian dislikes the person he’s becoming: cynical, selfish. He loves the kids, but really sees them only at weekends. He tells himself that until Noah and India are 18 he has to keep the money coming in. Only in his late 30s, he feels stuck.
Shiv’s life is predictable: a walk in the park with the kids, a coffee with other mums, lunch, naps, bathtime, put the children down, wait for an exhausted Damian to come home. She knows what she wants – and it isn’t the domestic round.
Sometimes in the evening they have the “what if?” conversation, usually after watching a programme called No Going Back on the telly. This particular evening something shifts. “What if I take a year off?” says Damian. “A sabbatical. We could do some travelling.”
Shiv is doubtful. “And after the year? Go back to everyday life?”
And then Shiv has a brainwave. “Why not sail away on our boat? On Friendship?”
They own an old wooden-hulled fishing boat that Damian has spent more than a decade rebuilding. But with the advent of the kids they haven’t used it much, and the mooring fees are expensive. It’s hardly worth keeping, yet Damian, who has invested so much money, time and effort in it, can’t bear to let it go.
It would mean real family time before the children have to go to school, they could let their house. “I’m all for it,” says Shiv. “I can see us now, sailing off into the sunset, kids running barefoot…”
And the idea is born.
The boat is small, neither child can swim – hell, at five months India can’t even walk. Both kids are in nappies. Friendship will need tons of safety equipment.
But they do it. It takes months of preparation, but eventually they arrive in Calais, where Damian has already taken Friendship, and set off via canals and rivers to the Mediterranean Sea.
It is by no means plain sailing. Neither Damian nor Shiv are experienced boaters, and they make many mistakes. It rains and rains. They get on each other’s nerves in the confined space. The kitchen table and benches have to be turned into a bed every night. The children have to be clipped on every time they go up on deck. Friendship’s engine throbs loudly, which means no one can hear anyone speak.
The boat develops serious problems. They run aground. Damian has to learn how to be fulltime parent rather than a weekend special.
And yet. After months they chug into Paris and find a prime mooring spot right under the Eiffel Tower. India learns to walk in the gardens of the Louvre.
They meet great people who are friendly and helpful. They feel they are slowing down, enjoying the moment. The children don’t fall in the water. Damian and Shiv fall back in love with each other. In fact they both feel they love each other more than they ever did before.
The book ends with their reaching the Med, and having to decide whether to turn left for Italy or right for Spain. So what happened next? Who knows? There’s a website address but frustratingly it doesn’t work. And the book is dedicated to “Noah, India and now Willow”. Huh? Where did she come from?
For Better, For Worse, is narrated by both Damian, who refused to fill in a ship’s log, and Shiv, who kept a diary. At first I thought the chopping and changing between the two voices would be awkward, but you quickly get used to it. This is a delightful read.