In this, her second novel after the award-winning Certainty, Madeleine Thien continues to demonstrate her astonishing gifts as a storyteller.
Set in Cambodia during the regime of the Khmer Rouge and in present-day Montreal, Dogs at the Perimeter tells the story of Janie, who as a child experiences the terrible violence carried out by the Khmer Rouge and loses everything she holds dear. Three decades later, Janie has relocated to Montreal, although the scars of her past remain visible. After abandoning her husband and son, Janie takes refuge in the home of her friend, the scientist Hiroji Matsui. Janie and Hiroji find solace in their shared grief and pain--until Hiroji's disappearance opens old wounds, and Janie finds that she must struggle to find grace in a world overshadowed by the sorrows of her past.
Beautifully realized, deeply affecting, Dogs at the Perimeter evokes the injustice of tyranny through the eyes of a young 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.
About the author
Madeleine Thien (born 1974) is a Canadian short story writer and novelist. Born in Vancouver, British Columbia, she was educated at Simon Fraser University and the University of British Columbia. In 2001 she was awarded the Canadian Authors Association Air Canada Award for most promising Canadian writer under age 30. In 2008, she was invited to participate in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Excerpt: Dogs at the Perimeter (by (author) Madeleine Thien)
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.
Praise for Dogs at the Perimeter:
"The story is so compelling, the characters so authentic and the writing so fine that you race through intently . . . savouring every page." Montreal Gazette
"Stark, beautiful prose." Maclean's
"Fiction like this, clear-eyed and truthful, can give a shape to the chaos of history. . . . Powerful and moving." The Times
"The beauty of Madeleine Thien's prose doesn't reside only in its clarity and elegance. . . . Thien, a deeply empathetic writer, enfolds her wounded creations in morally precise language, offering the consolation of, in effect, storytelling." The Globe and Mail
A Truly Moving NovelI have just finished reading Dogs at the Perimeter on the shores of Lake Beira in Colombo, Sri Lanka. In the magical land of Ondaatje, the sultry air caresses my thoughts and body as I pen these short reflections on Thien’s powerful work of friendship, closing a circle of longing, suffering and uncertainty.
Madeleine Thien’s narrative is a spell-binding odyssey into a dark and painful past. Janie, now a medical researcher in Montreal with a caring husband and a loving son, must relive the tragedy of her childhood in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Her return to this world of horror and absurdity is triggered by the sudden disappearance of her friend and colleague, Hiroji Matsui. Hiroji is a brilliant doctor, whose brother, Junichiro, vanished in Cambodia thirty years earlier while working for the Red Cross. Janie’s bond to Hiroji quietly unfolds in the opening chapters. While he is not her lover, at least not in the traditional sense, she is drawn to him through their common loss of loved ones in a distant land, and he becomes her soul mate. His unexplained absence crushes her existence and distances her from her husband and child. Convinced that Hiroji has returned to Cambodia in a renewed attempt to find Junichiro, Janie embarks on a physical and metaphysical voyage to a land that she has long locked out of her thoughts.
On the cover of my edition of Madeleine Thien’s entrancing novel, fellow Canadian author, Johanna Skibsrud, has graced Thien with the recommendation “If you read one Canadian book this year, let it be this one.” A fair comment but erroneous in adding “Canadian,” for Thien’s work transcends geographic boundaries and national identity. Nor is it really a “book,” but rather a cloud of thoughts, an experience as heavy and penetrating as the languid air of Lake Beira.
With Dogs at the Perimeter, Madeleine Thien has ascended into the inner circle of timeless authors who entrap your soul with their first lines of prose and subsume your thoughts into theirs until the last.
Dogs at the Perimeter is published by Emblem (McClelland & Steward) and is available at the Collected Works Bookstore in Ottawa.
Con Cú is the author of Soldier, Lily, Peace and Pearls published by Deux Voiliers Publishing.