I’ve been a fan of Madeleine Thien ever since I read her short story collection Simple Recipes that was published a decade ago. I’ve always remembered her style of writing to be on the sparser side of the spectrum, and now having read her third book of fiction, Dogs at the Perimeter, I’m beginning to realize that this may be a strategy on her part, a way of packing in the greatest amount of pain that a reader can absorb from the page.
Thien’s fourth attempt, Dogs at the Perimeter, is a first in Asian Canadian letters. To the best of my knowledge, there hasn’t been a novel written on the Cambodian refugee experience in Canada. Though I suppose Kim Echlin did publish The Disappeared some years back, but from what I understand, Echlin’s novel privileges the perspective of a Euro-Canadian protagonist.
Adopted by a Euro-Canadian couple as a child, the main character in Thien’s novel, Janie, is the only surviving Cambodian refugee in her family. Despite having everyone and everything she once knew and loved in Phnom Penh taken away from her by the Khmer Rouge, she manages to adjust, growing up and making a good life for herself as a neurological scientist in current day Montreal. But when we’re introduced to Janie, we get a sense that her world is falling apart. Much like her patients who have lost certain memories and body functioning and skills due to brain damage, Janie can barely hold onto the present moment. Unlike Janie’s patients, however, her brain is still intact.
What triggers the dissolution of her world is the sudden disappearance of her close friend and colleague, Dr. Hiroji Matsui. With no explanation whatsoever, Hiroji walks out of the brain research centre and never comes back. But what leaves Janie reeling is more the reason for his vanishing act than his actual disappearance: just before he disappears, Hiroji was looking into the national archives in Cambodia for information on his long lost brother, James, who had been taken captive as a Red Cross volunteer by the Khmer Rouge some 40 years back. On the heels of Hiroji’s unexplained absence, it is his search that floods Janie’s world with her childhood recollections of the past, a past that has always haunted her, a past that she had managed to let go until now.
I love that about this novel. Though we are given the story of how a US proxy war and resulting civil war and genocide forever impacted the lives of Cambodian families like Janie’s, we are also given a glimpse into how this history touched the lives of another family who had already fled their homeland once due to another imperial conflict, namely the US bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima that put a devastating end to the Pacific War. Thien’s novel suggests that we are all profoundly connected to one another. What brings us together is the haunting memory and experience of war, loss, displacement, and emotional upheaval.
Literary editor for Schema Magazine, Malissa is a second gen Canadian and third gen Sino-Vietnamese. A firm believer in the power of words and yoga, she is known for her unrestrained and infectious laugh. Her guilty pleasures include predictable crime shows, sexy legal dramas, dancing with wild abandon, and ethnic restaurants. She’s also finishing a PhD dissertation on Aboriginal-Chinese relations in Chinese Canadian literature. You can find her on Twitter @loudmouthAsian or on academia.edu.