“Remember this night,” he said. “Mark it in your memories because tomorrow everything changes.”
One starless night, a girl’s childhood was swept away by the terrors of the Khmer Rouge. Exiled from the city, she and her family were forced to live out in the open under constant surveillance. Each night, people were taken away. Caught up in a political storm which brought starvation to millions, tore families apart, and changed the world forever, she lost everyone she loved.
Three decades later, Janie’s life in Montreal is unravelling. Haunted by her past, she has abandoned her husband and son and taken refuge in the home of her friend, the brilliant, troubled scientist, Hiroji Matsui. In 1970, Hiroji’s brother, James, travelled to Cambodia and fell in love. Five years later, the Khmer Rouge came to power, and James vanished. Brought together by the losses they endured, Janie and Hiroji had found solace in each another. And then, one strange day, Hiroji disappeared.
Engulfed by the memories she thought she had fled, Janie must struggle to find grace in a world overshadowed by the sorrows of her past.
Beautifully realized, deeply affecting, Dogs at the Perimeter evokes totalitarianism through the eyes of a little girl and draws a remarkable map of the mind’s battle with memory, loss, and the horrors of war. It confirms Madeleine Thien as one of the most gifted and powerful novelists writing today.
They sleep early and rise in the dark. It is winter now. The nights are long but outside, where the leaves have fallen from the branches, the snowed-inlight comes through. There is a cat who finds the puddles of sunshine. She was small when the boy was small, but then she grew up and left him behind. Still, at night, she hunkers down on Kiri’s bed, proprietorial. They were born just a few weeks apart, but now he is seven and she is forty-four.
My son is the beginning, the middle, and the end. When he was a baby, I used to follow him on my hands and knees, the two of us crawling over the wood floors, the cat threading between our legs. Hello, hello, my son would say. Hello, my good friend. How are you? He trundled along, an elephant, a chariot, a glorious madman.
It is twilight now, mid-February.
Tonight’s freezing rain has left the branches crystalline. Our home is on the second floor, west facing, reached by a twisting staircase, the white paint chipping off, rust burnishing the edges. Through the window, I can see my son. Kiri puts a record on, he shuffles it gingerly out of its cardboard sleeve, holding it lightly between his fingertips.
I know the one he always chooses. I know how he watches the needle lift and the mechanical arm move into place. I know the outside but not the quiet, not the way his thoughts rise up, always jostling, always various, not how they untangle from one another or how they fall so inevitably into place.
Kiri is in grade two. He has his father’s dark-brown hair, he has startling, beautiful eyes, the same colour as my own. His name, in Khmer, means “mountain.” I want to run up the stairs and turn my key in the lock, the door to my home swinging wide open.
When my fear outweighs my need – fear that Kiri will look out the window and see this familiar car, that my son will see me – I turn the ignition, steer myself from the sidewalk, and roll away down the empty street. In my head, ringing in my ears, the music persists, his body swaying like a bell to the melody. I remember him, crumpled on the floor, looking up at me, frightened. I try to cover this memory, to focus on the blurring lights, the icy pavement. My bed is not far away but a part of me wants to keep on driving, out of the city, down the highway straight as a needle. Instead, I circle and circle the residential streets. A space opens up in front of Hiroji’s apartment, where I have been sleeping these last few weeks, and I edge the car against the curb.
Tomorrow will come soon, I tell myself. Tomorrow I will see my son.
The wind swoops down, blowing free what little heat I have. I can barely lock the door and get upstairs fast enough. Inside, I pull off my boots but keep my coat and scarf on against the chill. Hiroji’s cat, Taka the Old, skips ahead of me, down the long hallway. On the answering machine, the message light is flashing and I hit the square button so hard the machine hiccups twice before complying.
Navin’s voice. “I saw the car,” my husband says. “Janie? Are you there?” He waits. In the background, my son is calling out. Their voices seem to echo. “No, Kiri. Hurry up, kiddo. Back to bed.” I hear footsteps, a door closing, and then Navin coming back. He says he wants to take Kiri to Vancouver for a few weeks, that the time, and distance, might help us. “We’ll stay at Lena’s place,” he says. I am nodding, agreeing with every word – Lena’s home has stood empty since she died last year – but a numb grief is flowing through me.
One last message follows. I hear a clicking on the line, then the beep of keys being pressed, once, twice, three times. The line goes dead.
The fridge is remarkably empty. I scan its gleaming insides, then do a quick inventory: old bread in the freezer and in the cupboard two cans of diced tomatoes, a tin of smoked mussels, and, heaven, three bottles of wine. I liberate the bread and the mussels, pour a glass of sparkling white, then stand at the counter until the toaster ejects my dinner. Gourmet. I peel back the lid of the can and eat the morsels one by one. The wine washes the bread down nicely. Everything is gone too soon but the bottle of wine that accompanies me to the sofa, where I turn the radio on. Music swells and dances through the apartment.
This bubbly wine is making me morose. I drink the bottle quickly in order to be rid of it. “Only bodies,” Hiroji once told me, “have pain.” He had been in my lab, watching me pull a motor neuron from Aplysia. Bodies, minds: to him they were the same, one could not be considered without the other.
Half past ten. It is too early to sleep but the dark makes me uneasy. I want to call Meng, my oldest friend, we have not spoken in more than two weeks, but it is the hour of the wolves in Paris. My limbs feel light and I trickle, wayward, through the rooms. On the far side of the apartment, in Hiroji’s small office, the windows are open and the curtains seem to move fretfully, wilfully. The desk has exploded, maybe it happened last week, maybe earlier, but now all the papers and books have settled into a more balanced state of nature. Still, the desk seems treacherous. Heaped all over, like a glacier colonizing the surface, are the pages I have been working on. Taka the Old has been here: the paper is crumpled and still faintly warm.
Since he disappeared, nearly three months ago now, I’ve had no contact with Hiroji. I’m trying to keep a record of the things he told me: the people he treated, the scientists he knew. This record fills sheet after sheet – one memory at a time, one place, one clue – so that every place and every thought won’t come at once, all together, like a deafening noise. On Hiroji’s desk is an old photograph showing him and his older brother standing apart, an emerald forest behind them. Hiroji, still a child, smiles wide. They wear no shoes, and Junichiro, or James, stands with one hand on his hip, chin lifted, challenging the camera. He has a bewitching, sad face.
Sometimes this apartment feels so crowded with loved ones, strangers, imagined people. They don’t accuse me or call me to account, but I am unable to part with them. In the beginning, I had feared the worst, that Hiroji had taken his own life. But I tell myself that if this had been a suicide, he would have left a note, he would have left something behind. Hiroji knew what it was to have the missing live on, unending, within us. They grow so large, and we so empty, that even the coldest winter nights won’t swallow them. I remember floating, a child on the sea, alone in the Gulf of Thailand. My brother is gone, but I am looking up at the white sky and I believe, somehow, that I can call him back. If only I am brave enough, or true enough. Countries, cities, families. Nothing need disappear. At Hiroji’s desk, I work quickly. My son’s voice is lodged in my head, but I have lost the ability to keep him safe. I know that no matter what I say, what I make, the things I have done can’t be forgiven. My own hands seem to mock me, they tell me the further I go to escape, the greater the distance I must travel back. You should never have left the reservoir, you should have stayed in the caves. Look around, we ended up back in the same place, didn’t we? The buildings across the street fall dark, yet the words keep coming, accumulating like snow, like dust, a fragile cover that blows away so easily.
Madeleine Thien is the author of two previous books of fiction, Simple Recipes, a collection of stories, and Certainty, a novel. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Granta, The Walrus, Five Dials, Brick, and the Asia Literary Review, and her work has been translated into more than sixteen languages. In 2010, she received the Ovid Festival Prize, awarded each year to an international writer of promise. She lives in Montreal.close this panel
A Globe and Mail Best Book
“If you read one Canadian book this year, let it be this one.”
— Johanna Skibsrud
“The story is so compelling, the characters so authentic and the writing so fine that you race through intently... savouring every page.”
— Montreal Gazette
“The beauty of Madeleine Thien’s prose doesn’t reside only in its clarity and elegance. She’s a surveyor of damaged lives. Thien, a deeply empathetic writer, enfolds her wounded creations in morally precise language, offering the consolation of, in effect, storytelling.”
— Globe and Mail
“This book is as powerful as history, as magical as myth, and a light shining on one of the darkest chapters of modern history.”
— Alice Pung, author of Unpolished Gem
“Thien once again demonstrates a talent for creating vivid, indelible images in language both precise and lyrical...there is a confidence in Thien’s writing that many more accomplished authors never attain.”
— Quill & Quire
“Dogs at the Perimeter is a novel of quiet and breathtaking beauty.… Thien opens up the hearts of her characters with a precision that is deeply humane, peeling apart, page by page, the secrets they keep from themselves.”
— Jury citation, Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction (shortlist)
“The strife in Indo—China has inspired some astonishing writing in recent decades, both fiction and non—fiction. Dogs at the Perimeter belongs with the best of such works. But it also tells a more universal story about being borne back into the past — and the inescapability of history.”
— The Economist
“Dogs at the Perimeter explores the aftermath of war with a quiet power. . . . This is a beautiful, deeply moving novel that addresses universal questions.”
— The Independent
“Extremely moving and honest while maintaining lyricism and beautifully balanced prose…”
— A. L. Kennedy
“Fiction like this, clear—eyed and truthful, can give a shape to the chaos of history.… The quiet elegance of Thien’s writing makes a brutal story powerful and moving.”
— The Times
“Madeleine Thien’s second novel offers a gripping child’s—eye view of the Cambodian genocide. Sure—footed when it comes to which horrors to show and which to leave to the imagination, it is also utterly convincing in how it weighs the psychological damage inflicted by a regime that demands denial of family, friends and self as a condition of survival.”
— Financial Times
“Madeleine Thien’s powerful new novel reminds us, leaving the past behind is rarely simple.… The bewildering horror of ordinary people suddenly thrown into a world of brutal chaos is brilliantly evoked.…Thien brilliantly evokes 1970s Cambodia, from the chaos of Phnom Penh to the sweltering, filthy work camps, from the interrogation centres to the lush forests. But she’s equally adept at bringing cold, clean Montreal to life, from its icy streets to Hiroji’s abandoned apartment.… Her novel leaves the reader deeply moved and, ultimately, hopeful.”
— Irish Times