Review: Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien

Dogs at the Perimeter
Madeleine Thien
McClelland & Stewart

Don't miss my interview with Madeleine Thien tomorrow!

Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter opens with the disappearance of neurologist Hiroji Matsui. He is the mentor, colleague, and friend of Janie, a neuroscience researcher at the Brain Research Centre in Montreal. Janie is also having some problems of her own and can no longer live with her husband and young son. She retreats to Hiroji’s apartment and finds a clue to his whereabouts, an underlined Cambodian phone number. In addition to their common professional field, the two share the tragedy of having lost family members in Cambodia.

Thirty years before, young Janie had escaped the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, while Hiroji had lost his brother, Junichiro (James), a Canadian Red Cross doctor who had been sent to work in the refugee camps of Phnom Penh in 1972. James vanishes in 1975, like an estimated 1.7 million other people. His disappearance still haunts Hiroji, who failed to locate his elder sibling three decades earlier.

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge evacuated the cities of Cambodia and began its purge of the educated and middle class. In this novel, Mei, her younger brother, and her parents are among the Phnom Penh evacuees. The Khmer Rouge set out to break all societal bonds, making any reference to the past, before Year Zero, a crime. Prayer, grief and nostalgia are deemed forms of betrayal. People are forced to assume new identities, and family ties are erased. Mei manages to escape and is later adopted by a Canadian family who change her name to Janie. 

As a mother and wife, Janie is in a crisis. She cannot reconcile her current life with that of her past. In an attempt to pull all the fragments of her life together, she returns to Cambodia. Through her own memories and connections, Janie is able to help Hiroji find his brother alive, while answering some of her own questions.

Although Thien’s prose appears simple, it is filled with dense detail, moving seamlessly between past and present. In just 253 pages, the narrator, Janie, tells her story and that of five other characters, searching for her own validation in their stories. Given the emotional intensity of the narrative and the dream-like quality of Thien’s writing, this novel warrants a slow careful read.  In fact, my only criticism of the book is that the author could have offered some more description of the physical settings and characters to give the reader a few breaks after some of the more moving scenes.

Dogs on the Perimeter is haunting, profound and beautiful. Although I finished the book a month ago, it took just as long to digest.  The novel offers plenty of food for thought whether about the inner workings of the brain, identity, or recovery from trauma. I found myself wanting to know more about Cambodia and to see images of life before the civil war, or something to replace the war footage I had seen on the nightly news as a child. Fortunately, I discovered Thien’s Dogs on the Perimeter Tumblr account and a beautiful short entitled, “the Visual Notebook.” This is a perfect complement to the book. Not only does it provide the reader with captivating images and links to further reading, but it also gives us an idea as to the depth of the research the author conducted to write this book.  

Dogs is a must-read!

This was crossposted at Rover: An independent review of art and culture in Montreal.

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