From Margaret O'Brien: Madeleine Thien's Dogs at the Perimeter

The killing fields of Cambodia loom large in the twentieth century’s catalogue of horrors. How to absorb the reality that Pol Pot and his followers massacred more than a million of their own people, driving them out of the cities into a countryside where they were starved and beaten to death?

In her second novel Madeleine Thien enters this harrowing territory. Janie, the central character, is losing herself, disintegrating under the weight of her memories of her lost childhood and of her parents who were destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. As her family’s lone survivor, Janie was given a new life in Canada, arriving as an unaccompanied minor “in the language of the aid world.” As the novel opens, in 2005 in Montreal, she has suddenly left her husband and child out of fear that she will harm them. This lost soul, brutally torn from her own family as a child, feels unbearable shame and guilt.

Thien shifts perspectives throughout the novel, and in sometimes confusing time sequences we learn why Janie has sought refuge in the apartment of her friend Hiroji, and why Hiroji himself has vanished. Hiroji is a neurological researcher, and Janie’s assistance in his work parallels her own life where her soul, or mind, or being (or all three) has lost its unity. Her identity has been fractured, just as Hiroji’s subjects find their selves “dwindling” and disappearing. Janie’s inability to integrate her past self with her present reality is the core of the novel, and she must reach back into that other country, the past, for any hope in the present.

The narrative entitled “Mei,” describing the horrific experience of Janie and her brother under the Khmer Rouge, is the most powerful. Thien succeeds remarkably well in presenting the terror through a child’s eyes. The description of the children’s suffering, and their eventual perilous flight from Cambodia after the deaths of their parents, is almost unbearable. This story is the heart of the book, drawing us into the past that has splintered present-day Janie.

The narrative shifts back and forth from Montreal to past and contemporary Cambodia. Thien knows her Montreal winter; Janie is chilled in body and soul as she wanders the icy streets. Domestic interiors are not so well rendered, and there are some jarring instances of over-writing: “The orange light of his truck spins over us like quiet laughter.” Particularly in the case of Kiri, Janie’s seven-year-old son, the dialogue is stilted and artificial, and Janie’s husband Navin remains an unformed figure.

But Janie herself is well-realized, a character tossed about by the tides of history and choosing life, a character for whom words like reconciliation and closure have no meaning. Her journey lies in trying to re-build, trying to gather all her lives, the pralung or soul of which her long-dead mother spoke.

Can fiction deal with unimaginable evil? Can the fictionalized story of a child in the killing fields bring us understanding? The New York Times obituary for Jorge Semprun, a Spanish writer whose work dealt with his experiences in Buchenwald, cites his conviction that fiction is "a tool for unveiling, not obscuring, the truth.“ Madeleine Thien has, bravely I think, chosen to write about a particular evil reality. Through Janie she unveils a dreadful truth.

Dogs at the Perimeter, by Madeleine Thien
Format: Hardcover, 264 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart
ISBN: 978-0-7710-8408-9 (0-7710-8408-0).

Reviewed by Vancouver writer, librarian and former bookseller Margaret O'Brien.

Margaret O'Brien
Photo: Zenon Samila
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