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Dogs at the Perimeter

by Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien’s 2006 debut novel, Certainty, about a Vancouver radio producer haunted by events in her Asian expat parents’ pasts, garnered high praise and marked her as a writer to watch. Her follow-up does not disappoint.

Opening in Montreal, the book is narrated by Janie, a fortysomething medical researcher whose life is coming apart at the seams. The sudden departure of her friend and mentor, Hiroji, has triggered a downward spiral into drinking and depression. After losing control and striking her young son, Janie leaves home and takes up residence in Hiroji’s empty apartment, where she attempts to pull herself together.

But Janie cannot escape her demons. She is haunted by memories of her childhood in Pol Pot’s Cambodia, where she and her family were forced from their home in Phnom Penh as part of the Khmer Rouge’s mass evacuation of city dwellers into the countryside. Helplessly, she watches as her father is taken away and her mother succumbs to illness and starvation. Worst of all is her brother’s transformation from dreamy boy to child soldier, and his subsequent death, for which she feels responsible.Janie’s story is inconceivably tragic, and yet, as a parallel storyline involving Hiroji’s quest to find his missing brother in Cambodia unfolds, she finds, if not closure, then at least acceptance and hopefulness for the future.

Thien once again demonstrates a talent for creating vivid, indelible images in language both precise and lyrical. Scenes of sadness, cruelty, and love are carefully measured for full effect without becoming overwhelming. Her ability to handle a fractured chronology results in seamless and subtle transitions between recollection and introspection.

There is a confidence in Thien’s writing that many more accomplished authors never attain. Though some readers may quibble about the novel’s thematic similarities to its predecessor, Dogs at the Perimeter is more intimate in its examination of memory, loss, and the intrinsic need to make peace with one’s past.