Book Review: Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien

Dogs at the Perimeter Madeleine Thien- Dogs at the Perimeter

 Format- Paperback

 Source- Review copy

 Publisher- Allen & Unwin

 Publication date- 1st April, 2012

 Synopsis: 2005: In the midst of a cold Montreal winter, a Cambodian woman, known only to us as ‘Janie’, separates from her husband and son. She takes refuge in the apartment of her friend, the neurologist Hiroji Matsui, but one day he leaves the Brain Research Centre where they are both employed and disappears into the night…
We journey back thirty years from the moment of his vanishing to Janie as a young girl in Phnom Penh, where Cambodia is ruled by the brutal Khmer Rouge. People are seized in the night, families are torn apart, and hunger is everywhere. Helped by a defector, Janie escapes by sea, and arrives in Canada as a refugee. In Montreal, she meets Hiroji – whose brother James, a Red Cross doctor, disappeared in Cambodia in 1975 – and who, like Janie, is haunted by the many lives we carry within ourselves, and the unwieldy shards of history that we make efforts to displace, but fail to extinguish.
Weaving together these fragments in clean, luminous prose, Dogs at the Perimeter is a remarkable, unparalleled map of the mind’s battle with memory, loss, and the unspeakable horrors of war.

Review: Dogs at the Perimeter is an emotionally charged story about the lingering effects of the Khmer Rouge war in Cambodia on fictional characters Janie, Hiroji and James. It’s a short novel at just over 250 pgs.

The story is set in 2005 in Canada and is told in first person account by the protagonist, Janie, a Cambodian woman who has separated from her patient husband Navin and kind-hearted son Kiri. Janie is a lost soul, with an unresolved past stemming from her early experiences as a victim of the war in Cambodia. Witness to death, murders and first-hand experiences of grief, loss and trauma. Her fragmented self is reflected beautifully in the story-telling by the author which flows from the past to present and the past again. I sometimes get confused when the timeline is jumpy in a story, but I managed to keep up with Dogs at the Perimeter and I think that’s because it just made sense and mirrored where Janie was at in dealing with her past.

Janie’s friend Hiroji, a Japanese neurologist in Canada goes missing and she moves into his apartment and begins to piece together her past and present and ultimately her future. Hiroji’s story is told through the eyes of Janie. He is driven to track down his brother James, a doctor who went missing during the war.

Through glimpses of the past in each of these character’s lives, it brings together the various fragments of their lives and a broader understanding of their current functioning. I think what stood out most for me, was “the unknown’ that many people of the war have to endure. The uncertainties of whether their loved ones survived or perished, whether they died of natural causes or were brutally murdered or whether they could still be out there with a new name, new family and a hazy recollection of what their lives once were.

Dogs at the Perimeter was a novel that I was drawn to because I loved travelling through Cambodia when I was overseas a couple of years ago and how the day I visited the Killing Fields and the Genocide Museum will stay with me forever. I have quite an interest in Cambodia’s recent war history and have read several autobiographies from survivors of the war. The author of Dogs at the Perimeter has provided a vivid account of the wartime using fictional characters that could very easily be real-life memoirs.

For those with an interest in the effects of trauma, war and in particular Cambodia’s history, then I’d highly recommend picking up this book to read.

4/5 rating

Purchase book @

Fishpond/ Amazon/ Book Depository UK/ Allen & Unwin

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