BY NAN MA
“How many lives can we live? How many can we steal back and piece together?” asks Janie, the protagonist of award-winning author Madeleine Thien’s new novel “Dogs at the Perimeter.” In this captivating narrative, Thien deftly weaves together the past and the present, the personal and the historical, official narratives and folklore, memories and dreams. Janie’s questions, which lie at the heart of the novel, haunt the reader as much as they haunt both Janie, a researcher in Montreal who had witnessed and survived the Cambodian genocide as a child, and the novel’s other main character, Hiroji, Janie’s mentor whose brother James disappeared in Cambodia while working as a Red Cross doctor during the genocide.
The novel begins with the mysterious disappearance of Hiroji, whom Janie believes has gone to Cambodia in search of James. As Janie pieces together the puzzle of Hiroji’s disappearance, she confronts the demons and ghosts of her own past: the horrific atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge that she witnessed as a child, the loss of her parents, and the perilous border-crossing journey she and her brother undertook to escape. Janie soon realizes the past cannot be put to rest easily by one’s sheer will to forget; for her to live in the present and be present in her husband’s and son’s life, she must find the courage to bear witness to the past.
With great compassion and grace, Thien unveils the multiple lives her characters lead in fragments and glimpses. Thien does not offer an exhaustive, didactic view of her characters and their lives. Instead, she paints their interiority and the external world they inhabit with precise, sparing, and lyrical prose. In the fictional world that Thien creates, violence is never explicitly and graphically depicted. What we see are the harrowing, almost impressionistic details of its aftermath — the thinning of a woman’s wrist, a mutilated body, the cleaning of a knife on the grass. While the events that unfold in the novel are heart wrenching and often devastating, the poise and elegance with which Thien imagines and captures emotionally resonating, visually stunning details are mesmerizing and much to be admired.