‘Dogs at the Perimeter’ by Madeleine Thien

Dogs-at-the-perimeter

Fiction – hardcover; Granta Books; 272 pages; 2012. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Last year I read Kim Echlin’s The Disappeared, a very moving novel about the Cambodian genocide in which more than a million people were systematically killed as part of Pol Pot’s regime. Her fellow Canadian author Madeleine Thien treads similar territory with her novel Dogs at the Perimeter, which opens as follows:

On November 29, 2005, my friend Dr. Hiroji Matsui walked out of Montreal’s Brain Research Centre at 7:29 in the evening. On the security video, his expression gives nothing away. For a brief moment, the camera captures him in passing: greying hair, neatly combed. […] He exits through a side door, down a flight of metal steps. And then Hiroji walked into the city and disappeared into air.

A novel about disappearances

Hiroji’s disappearance is the first among many in this novel, which is essentially about the ways in which the people of Cambodia disappeared, many of them overnight and without warning, during 1975-79.

His friend and colleague, Janie, who narrates most of this story, lost her entire family in the Cambodian genocide. But that was 30 years ago. Now she lives in Canada, is married, has a son and a successful career as a electrophysiologist studying neuron activity. What we don’t understand when we first begin reading the book is why Janie no longer lives in the marital home and why she only sees her son at the school gate in the mornings.

So this is a book about secrets, too.

And in the disjointed narrative that swings between first person and third person those secrets, both recent and long since buried, come to the surface in tune with Janie’s fragmented recollections.

Past and present collide

When Janie heads to Cambodia to look for Hiroji — because that is where she believes he has gone to look for a long-lost brother who was a Red Cross doctor — her past and present collide.

For the first time in her life, she is able to confront what happened to her as an 11-year-old girl when she and her family were turfed out of their home in Phnom Penh by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime and transported to the countryside. She recalls the fear, the starvation — and the smell of death. And she remembers what it was like to escape by boat and to arrive in Canada as a young, traumatised refugee.

Dogs at the Perimeter is far from a cheery read, but there’s something about Thien’s detached prose style that left me feeling strangely unmoved by the story. It’s almost as if you are watching events unfold from behind a window; you can witness the pain and the grief and the horror, but you can never feel truly part of it because you are shielded by a thick pane of glass.

Deftly controlled narrative

Thien’s narrative is deftly controlled. It’s up to the reader to figure out what is going on, and in many ways it mirrors Janie’s descent into pyschological breakdown, offering important scraps of information in random order, so that nothing is truly straightforward.

In fact, there were times I found the storyline a little bewildering, because I wasn’t sure what was real and what was not, nor whether Janie was talking about something in the here and now, or something that had happened in her past. But this is not a complaint. The novel invites slow, careful reading — and sometimes that is more rewarding than turning the pages at a furious pace.

As a book that explores memory, loss and madness — both political and personal — Dogs at the Perimeter is extraordinarily good, incredibly haunting and compassionate.

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4 thoughts on “‘Dogs at the Perimeter’ by Madeleine Thien

  1. I tried this one last year and abandoned it about 60 pages in, something I don’t do very often. I’d say it was a combination of the bewildering and emotional distancing that you mention.

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  2. I actually went through your archives to see if you’d read this one, Kevin. I can understand why you would abandon it. I quite enjoyed the book, but I just never felt emotionally engaged by it. I think it’s because of the bewildering storyline but also the fact that you don’t ever really get to “know” Janie and so you don’t invest anything in her journey — in other words, you just don’t care what happens to her/what happened to her. That probably sounds harsh but it is my experience of reading the book. I do wonder if it might have been more effective if the story was written from Hiroji’s point of view…

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  3. I’ve just finished reading this and agree completely with your assessment – there is definitely an emotional detachment here which prevented me from really connecting with the book. It also took me a while to get a hold of what was going on when “visions” or whatever they were from the past started slipping into Janie’s story. I actually found James’s story more powerful and affecting than that of Janie and Sopham – yes, theirs was harrowing and made me flinch, but again that emotional distancing was at work and I don’t know how intentional that was. Also some of the things she thought as a child and some of the things Sopham said seemed much older than their years (even given the circumstances).
    Having said all that, I enjoyed the book and it certainly educated me on a country and period of which I had very little knowledge (I have a copy of the Kim Echlin but have yet to read it) and I thought the stuff about memory and the fracturing of self and living a number of lives was very good indeed. I think if one image stays with me from this book though, it will be the story of Elie the former scientist who, due to a medical condition that is slowly rewiring her brain, becomes first an abstract painter, then a photo-realist one, before becoming just a mute observer – in many ways, it’s a story that sums up the themes of the novel, but it was also for me the most affecting bit of the book.

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  4. Good point about Elie — she’s maybe a metaphor for what it is like to not address events of the past, to keep mute about them. There’s a lot of stuff like that in the book, actually. The fact that Hiroji and Janie work in the field of brain / neuron research is a reflection of the books larger themes about memory and forgetting and recall.
    If you get around to reading the Echlin I think you will find it very different — it’s much more emotional, but it is, essentally, a love story so I guess that’s to be expected.

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