The beauty of Madeleine Thien's prose doesn't reside only in its clarity and elegance. She's a surveyor of damaged lives, and her characters no longer possess the requisite layers of skin to protect them from what they have endured, and what they remember. Thien, a deeply empathetic writer, enfolds her wounded creations in morally precise language, offering the consolation of, in effect, storytelling.
Dogs at the Perimeter is the young Montreal-based writer's second novel. It aims to render intimate a catastrophe the scale of the Cambodian genocide, and to inhabit the psyches of three of its victims. Add to this a time frame of several decades, with much of the narrative told via flashbacks and dreams, along with scene changes from wintry Canada to tropical Cambodia. Here is a modest-sized fiction with outsized ambitions.
Janie is a medical researcher in Montreal. When her friend and mentor, Japanese-Canadian neurologist Hiroji Matsui, vanishes, her own life unravels. She leaves her husband and child and moves into Matsui's apartment. There, she unearths the fragments from his past that intersect with her own upbringing in Cambodia.
The intersection is actually a collision, propelling her memories back 30 years. Raised in a middle-class household in Phnom Penh, Janie was 11 when the Khmer Rouge marched into the capital. The sheer madness that ensued, the abject darkness that fell over the country as Pol Pot attempted to establish a lunatic utopia using the corpses of two million people as foundation, are revealed through the eyes of a child. Thien tells of the family's destruction, and the girl's ordeal with her younger brother, in brisk, vivid strokes.
Hiroji Matsui's elder brother, it turns out, was likewise consumed by Cambodia. A Red Cross doctor working in Phnom Penh in 1975, James Matsui also went missing inside the nightmare. Both his experiences in captivity and his sibling's futile four-year vigil for him, across the border in Thailand, are narrated with the same crisp intensity.
How Janie and the Matsui brothers, past and present, Cambodia and Canada, finally come together is a plot detail best left unexplained. Suffice to say, the appetite for unfolding complicated stories in Dogs at the Perimeter is impressive, with revelations virtually right up to the last page. "You can follow the trail but you can't know in which direction you are headed," Janie thinks of reconstructing lives, "down to the end, or reversing, forever, to the beginning."
For all the assurance of her prose, Madeleine Thien is an instinctive writer, making decisions as much for reasons of tone and colour as plot. Shifts from narrative to narrative and character to character are abrupt and can be bewildering. The novel merits slow reading, both for its quality and, at moments, to sort out story and time lines.
Interestingly, Thien tells such bracing, shattering tales of Cambodian lives that the impulse is to race ahead, to find out what happens next. As so often with novels about memory, the present frame of Montreal, and Janie's brain research and struggles with mental equilibrium, pale set against the vivid past. In the same way that Janie was crucially defined by incidents from long ago, so is Dogs at the Perimeter most propulsive, and urgent, about southeast Asia, circa 1976.
But that, of course, is part of the larger story of how many Canadians must forever negotiate what, and who, they left behind. Canadian writers, in turn, have been negotiating this dynamic since, more or less, the country began being transformed, over and over, by immigration.
While some authors are declarative in their preference for the urgent present - Mordecai Richler once had a character dismiss his tumultuous European ancestry by saying that the family had come from "some shitty little village in Poland" - others find it morally and aesthetically necessary to be in perpetual dialogue between there and here, then and now.
Among those voices, Madeleine Thien's is already distinguished for its insight, compassion and quiet determination. "I saw so many things," a character in Dogs at the Perimeter says. "One day, I promise, I'll find a way to tell you everything."
Contributing reviewer Charles Foran's most recent book is Maurice Richard, part of the Penguin Extraordinary Canadians series.