07 March 2010

Sharyn McCrumb

If he stayed chained naked to this post much longer, there just wouldn't be any afterward to the foreplay.

There is something very comfortable about Sharyn McCrumb's novels. Even when she's writing about gruesome stuff like murder or gloomy subjects like mental illness, injustice and ghosts, she still manages to exude a feeling of cosiness and comfort. Her books are always humourous as well, but the humour is never gratuitous. It lightens up the mood but doesn't trivialise the serious stuff.

Take the beginning line of this post, which constitutes the first paragraph of The PMS Outlaws, the latest (and possibly last, seeing as it came out 10 years ago) of her Elizabeth MacPherson novels. One main storyline of the novel - the one it takes its title from - is about two women fugitives who trawl bars looking for lonely men whom they fool into thinking they are going to have a threesome, then handcuff them naked to something solid, rob them and take off with their cars. You might think this would continue into something very funny, but in fact what follows is just a rather sad, realistic passage about a lonely man, made stupid by lust and a few too many beers, who fell for a trick by two clever, sober, not entirely sane women. But because of that opening sentence (which seems to be the man's own thoughts), that mixes sexual innuendo with humour, you keep reading, and before you know it, you have been sucked into the story. (If you want to know what happens next - go read the book).

McCrumb tents to interweave two or more story threads in her books. In her contemporary novels they at some point begin to merge, while in the novels that mix together historical events (often based on the true stories of real people) the historical part has a bearing on the contemporary one.

Quite apart from the fact that she is a fantastic storyteller, McCrumb is also good at creating realistic and believable characters, plus she writes well. All of this comes together to create very readable stories, and in the case of the Ballad novels, a loosely connected series of books with titles and sometimes story-lines drawn from folk-songs, books that have deservedly won literary awards.

I always come away from her books not with a feeling of having read a book, but of having had a story told to me orally, by an experienced storyteller with a good voice who knows just how to keep a listener happy and hanging on to every word. I love the feeling.

While The PMS Outlaws isn't one of her best, it is a good conclusion to the Elizabeth MacPherson series that leaves us with the hope that the very likeable but troubled Elizabeth will find, if not happiness, then at least closure in her life. I know I am going to miss her, but at least I have a few of McCrumb's Ballad novels still to look forward to, and also the hope that she still has many good writing years ahead of her.

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