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May 15, 2011

Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien

It is impossible not to notice how much Madeleine Thien’s latest novel Dogs at the Perimeter resembles her first novel Certainty, which was one of my favourite novels of 2007. Both novels are tapestries, of fact and story, of art and science, of grudges and absences, of history, the present, and ghosts. If is not that Thien has written the same book twice, but rather that both novels have been fashioned via similar technique, of the same-shaped pieces, that Thien continues to have the same pre-occupations, and now she’s transferred them to another set of characters, to another time and a different place in the world.

Dogs at the Perimeter opens with the disappearance of Hiroji Matsui, a Montreal neurologist, his absence noted by his friend and colleague Janie for whom such vanishings are familiar. In fact, this familiarity has been one of her connections to Hiroji, who has lost people as well–his father at a very young age, soon after their family had immigrated to Canada, and his brother James who’d disappeared in Cambodia while working as a doctor for the Red Cross in the early 1970s.

As a child, Janie had lost her own family in her native Cambodia, her translator father taken from the family soon after the Khmer Rouge came to power. The rest of the family was moved away from Phnom Penh, forced to work in agricultural communes, and eventually Janie becomes separated from all of them. Between this time and her eventual arrival in Canada, she experiences considerable trauma which is forced back to the surface of her consciousness after Hiroji disappears. And then Janie becomes a missing person herself, living apart from her son and husband for reasons that don’t become clear to the reader until close to the end of the book.

Dogs at the Perimeter is a strange blend of dream and reality, one often blending into the other. Characters partake in others’ fantasies, encourage and support one another in delusions, which makes sense in a country being driven into the ground through a revolution sustained via these very same methods. Everything is fluid–to save themselves, characters adopt different names, different identities, slip in and out of the world, giving and taking what they can. So that there are so many identities each person holds within herself, plus the selves of all the people she’s lost, and everything gets lost in the chaos of it all, but also nothing ever really goes away.

Thien’s prose is equally invested with strength and lyricism, and Thien’s characters are sympathetically rendered. With this novel, however, she has taken on an ambitious project, and while she should be commended for containing so much story within a volume that is relatively thin, at times the story itself thins out as well. Though this is a story about trauma, much that is traumatic happens out of the scene, which undermines the brutal realities of the history the novel depicts. Part of this, of course, is due to Janie’s suppression of her experiences, which is where much of the novel comes from, and I’m not sure I would have wanted the novel to be so unflinching, but this is still a remarkable gap in a story that is all about remarkable gaps anyway.

It’s also very much a novel made of pieces (and fragments of pieces), which requires the reader to have faith in the eventual construction of a coherent whole, but this is faith that comes with a pay-off. Madeline Thien knows what she’s doing. And perhaps the Madeleine Thien Novel is a form onto itself, and anyway, I’m just happy for the chance to read another one.

2 thoughts on “Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien”

  1. Sara says:

    There’s now a fascinating blog leading a parallel life to the book:

    1. Kerry says:

      This is awesome! Thanks for showing it to me.

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