Reviews > By Jenivieve DeVries, The Bookshelf’s “Off The Shelf”

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bookshelfAward-winning author Kelly Watt’s first novel, Mad Dog, opens with a quote from Milton’s Paradise Lost on the nature of good and evil: “O goodness infinite, goodness immense!/That all this good of evil shall produce,/ And evil turn to good.” These lines have particular poetic resonance in a time when newscasters’ talk of a changed world and the turbulent events of recent weeks (both the terrorist attacks and the bombing of Afghanistan) have made Canadians contemplate the complex moral issues surrounding the nature of good and evil. At the heart of Watt’s startling new novel is a look at fanaticism that dangerously blurs good and evil for the perceived fulfillment of a prophesy.

Mad Dog tells the chilling coming-of-age story of Sheryl Anne McRae. Sixteen-year-old Sheryl Ann is set to embark on a search for the mother who abandoned her, but her daydreams of leaving are interrupted when she meets Peter Angelo Luca, a tempting blond teenager with whom Sheryl falls in love. Sheryl decides to delay leaving until she can convince Peter that they should leave for the big city together. What follows is not a simple tale of teenaged love; Mad Dog is a spellbinding and detailed account of evil forces that drive the pair into madness.

Much of the force of the novel comes from Watt’s construction of short, sharp scenes. These emotionally intense micro-plots are rich in everyday texture: staring at the design in the bottom of their cereal bowl during a morning altercation, or, cryptic conversations about pagan rituals during a walk in the woods. The scenes do not work to develop the larger plot, but to reveal in choppy strokes, the underlying truths of the McRae family.

Watt’s backdrop for the teenagers’ ill-fated relationship is a secluded orchard in the fictional Eden Valley somewhere in Southern Ontairo. Her lush and detailed scenes capture the spirit of 1964 as Sheryl Anne and Peter drift through the summer with their blue seersucker shorts, James Dean hairstyles, Nancy Drew mysteries, cigarettes rolled into shirt sleeves, and cat’s eye sunglasses. Watt weaves the cultural undercurrents of the conflicts of the Vietnam War, the race riots and student protests in the States, and the intensification of the culture of sex, drugs and rock’ n’ roll into her detailed prose. In all of these matters the young pair are both painfully aware and disastrously naïve.

Characters are built strategically. Initially all of them, except Sheryl Ann, have an impenetrable suburban semi-gloss. Her adopted family consists of her young pharmacist Uncle Fergus, his pretty, bored wife Eleanor, their chubby and mean-spirited son Josh, and Uncle Eammon who tends the orchard. The cast is rounded out with Peter, the runaway who has decided to stay to make some money by working at the orchard on his way to a career as a famous musician in the big city. We are made aware of the cosmetic and pharmaceutical products used by the characters, but the individuals themselves are obscured. It’s as if their existence necessitates so much hiding that their daytime personalities become merely a shell of Clairol and Brylcream.

Watt then strips them bare in a single moment, a turn of a page, a line of text…I did it…It was not a dream…You’re just pretending to yourself. Ironically, as the characters’ malevolent selves are exposed they become more humane. The revelation of their chilling flaws is nothing short of shocking, but the reader looks deep into the eyes of a mad dog, flogged into submission, at the depths of depravity, lying exhausted, senseless with fear and longing to be loved.

Jenivieve DeVries is involved in Coastline publishing, which has just published The Culinary Saga of New Iceland – available at The Bookshelf and