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Thursday, February 15, 2018

Dogs at the Perimeter (2012) by Madeline Thien


Book Review
Dogs at the Perimeter (2012)
by Madeline Thien
Published in the United States in 2017 by W.W. Norton

  Originally published in her native Canada and the UK, Dogs at the Perimeter finally got a US release in the fall of last year.  Presumably that had something to do with her 2016 novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, making it onto the Booker Prize short-list.  If South Asian writers were the hot thing in the 1990's and 2000's, it is hard to argue with the proposition that East Asian writers and themes are the hot thing for the present decade. Certainly there are subjects a plenty, at least including multiple genocide level type events in China and Cambodia.  Do Not Say We Have Nothing is about China, and Dogs at the Perimeter is about Cambodia.  Specifically, Dogs at the Perimeter is about the experience of the characters at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

  The protagonist is Janie, a native of Cambodia who managed to escape (only after the death of both of her parents) and relocate in Montreal, where she works as a scientist studying the brain.  Dogs at the Perimeter is worth reading simply because of the factual type description of living through the first years of the Khmer Rouge.  If you happen to be unfamiliar, basically the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital, Phnom Phen, and forcibly relocated the entire population, murdering everyone who either worked for the government or qualified as an "intellectual."  Janie's father, a freelance interpreter, apparently qualified under the latter category.

  Janie's description of the past is interspersed with her complicated life in the present, obviously suffering from PTSD and obsessed with finding her colleague, a fellow scientist who emigrated from Japan as a child with his family.  His brother disappeared during the 1970's while he was working as a Red Cross doctor in Cambodia.   What the reader learns is that there is always hope amongst the ruins, but that the impact of that destruction on the human mind can bar a return to the prelapsarian state. 

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