Madeleine Thien's Dogs at the Perimeter faces Cambodia's tortured past

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      Dogs at the Perimeter
      By Madeleine Thien. McClelland & Stewart. 253 pp, hardcover

      Like the intricate art of paper-cutting, Madeleine Thien’s stories reveal their designs through the absences in her characters’ lives. She writes with artful nuance about men and women suspended in emotional limbo, sheared of innocence, families, lovers, and friends, exploring their circumstances in books like her award-winning collection of short fiction, Simple Recipes.

      Continuing in this vein, her latest novel, Dogs at the Perimeter, traces one woman’s search for her vanished mentor and looks intimately at the tragedies of war and the myriad identities that are parcelled into a lifetime.

      Janie is reeling from the disappearance of Dr. Hiroji Matsui, her friend and colleague at Montreal’s Brain Research Centre, who was last seen in November 2005. Separated from her husband and young son, she moves into the neurologist’s apartment, combing it for answers while revisiting the phantoms of her past.

      As a child, Janie witnessed the dismantlement of her family during the political upheaval that throttled Cambodia in the 1970s. At the same time and in the same place, Hiroji’s older brother James, a doctor with the Red Cross, went missing.

      Travelling across decades and perspectives, the narrative depicts the previous heartbreaks that funnel into these characters’ present lives.

      Liberated from forced labour, Janie was smuggled out of the country. Haunted by James’s disappearance, Hiroji searched unsuccessfully for his brother. Captured and imprisoned while on a humanitarian mission, James lost everything, including his name.

      Months after Hiroji’s disappearance, Janie learns that he is in Laos, and driven by the irrevocable losses in her youth, she returns to Southeast Asia determined to see him.

      Thien, who lives in Montreal, twines these multiple strands together, creating a tapestry of lives afflicted by turmoil and the quest to recover what misfortune has stolen. Her lithe and subtle prose tempers the plot’s devastating motifs. “Pain and suffering,” she writes, “are not, in the end, the same thing, one can be cleaved from the other like a diamond split along its planes, so that you feel pain but you are no longer bothered by it.”

      Dogs at the Perimeter is a work of restrained power, a remembrance of Cambodia’s genocide and the accumulated identities that linger.