This is just a sort of a review/recommendation. I want to write a proper review of Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter, but for now I will recycle something I wrote for the QWF awards about it. I don’t know why this book has seen so little coverage and acclaim, because it’s something startlingly lovely. Will lend to anyone willing to come to Cape Breton to get it…
This is the book that started me thinking about empathy and writing. More on that another time, but for now, please read this beautiful, smart, extraordinary book:
Madeleine Thien’s Dogs at the Perimeter is a novel of quiet and breathtaking beauty, the purest illustration of what grace there can be in the attempt to understand another human being. With unfaltering certainty of purpose, the novel follows its heroine Janie as she goes looking for her missing mentor, Hiroji Matsui, and uncovers him in a version of her own past. She pursues him back to Cambodia, which she escaped as a child after “Year Zero,” when power was seized by the Khmer Rouge, whose ideology demanded a systematic erasure of the past and of those who refused to forget it. Between luminous and seemingly effortless sentences, Thien burrows more deeply into the complexities of Janie’s memories and guilt and grief than seems imaginable.
Though it may not be one of the novel’s ostensible themes, the book is so much an exercise in empathy that it inspires a deep consideration of this capacity of literature, the moral purpose in reading and in writing. Loss like Janie’s defies quantification and thus, potentially, comprehension. She lost, in sequence, a father, a mother, a brother. And then she lost something like herself. And then she gained a husband, a daughter, but found what was left of her did not add up to the wife and mother they require. In all of this, her loss is at once immeasurable and undeniably comparable to myriad other such losses. This is where literature confronts arithmetic on the battlefield of human compassion. Why do we tend toward sorrow for the one but indifference for the hundred, or the thousand, or the million? As tragedies like the Khmer Rouge occupation of Cambodia recede into history, and become statistical rather than personal, authors like Thien are able to resuscitate our pity for those whose losses might otherwise be, in the most literal terms, unimaginable. A lesser writer might generalize these losses or fail to bring to them the luminous specificity and truth that Thien achieves. But this novel reminds us of the worthiness of the effort itself and of the possibility, as in this case, of ultimately attaining that most precious and rare thing: a glimpse, however brief, into the experience of another. And it’s the loss of this capacity, and will, to feel another’s pain and understand their experience as individual from the collective and of equal importance to one’s own, that is the tragic result of ideologies like that of the Khmer Rouge.
The novel’s compassion for its characters—all of them—is extraordinary. Despite the largeness of the history it occupies and the themes it explores, this is an astonishingly private book. Thien opens up the hearts of her characters with a precision that is deeply humane, peeling apart, page by page, the secrets they keep from themselves. The consequence of her delicacy is a novel of considerable weight and strength, no more fragile than the characters whose lives it illuminates, survivors despite all that they’ve lost, at once shattered and whole.