Can anyone ever fully recover from the trauma of war, especially if it rips apart your childhood? Although Canadian novelist Madeleine Thien is far too subtle a writer use this obvious framework, Dogs at the Perimeter explores the aftermath of war with a quiet power.
Set in Montreal and Cambodia, her novel uses two intersecting stories of people whose lives have been corroded by experiences that, decades after the Khmer Rouge, continue to inflict a brutal pain.
At the age of 10, Janie's childhood abruptly ends when the communists march into Phnom Penh, seizing her father and forcing her, along with her younger brother Sopham and mother, into a field where they are expected to begin life anew. Her father disappears, her mother goes quietly mad from starvation and grief, while her brother, aged eight, is hauled off to train as an interrogator. The deaths of her parents and brother haunt Janie, who escapes to Canada to become a successful neurologist, settled with a husband and young son.
But when her friend and colleague Hiroji Matsui returns to Cambodia to search for his missing brother, a doctor who worked with a relief agency there, Janie's own trauma returns. While Janie and Hiroji spend their lives helping patients regain their memories, they are tormented by what they cannot forget. She was forced to remember and to shape a narrative of her life, as the Khmer Rouge required even children to write their biographies.
As the past begins to seep into her present, Janie knows she must confront her grief and guilt at being her family's lone survivor. Thien writes with an elegant economy whose spare sentences heighten the horror. Among Janie's nightmares is the recurring memory of her brother's death at sea when they had fled Cambodia and were almost safe.
But Thien does find the words to describe the depths of her characters' pain and their reconciliation to living with their ghosts. "Inside us, from the beginning, we are entrusted with many lives," she writes. "From the first morning to the last we carry them until the end." This is a beautiful, deeply moving novel that addresses universal questions.