Janie is haunted. Her memories of family members she lost during the reign of the Khmer Rouge have a firm hold on her, to the point that she sometimes sees her brother on the streets of Vancouver as she walks the city. She’s not the only person haunted like this. Her colleague, Hiroji, also lost a brother and keeps thinking he sees that brother in Canada even though that brother hasn’t been heard of since 1975. Perhaps it’s not strange that both of them became neuroscientists who study memory. In Dogs at the Perimeter, by Madeleine Thien, Janie and Hiroji’s haunting memories spark crises. After decades of trying to move on with their lives, they are pulled irresistibly into the past to finally get some closure.
Throughout Dogs at the Perimeter, tertiary characters advise Janie to let their lost ones go. This is obviously easier said that done. The trauma that Janie experienced as a small child is impossible to put behind her. Little things will remind her of the horrors of life under the Khmer Rouge. She has survivor’s guilt because she was the only person in her family to make it out. Her survival was a matter of luck; there’s no good reason to explain why she lived and her brother didn’t. If there had a been a reason, perhaps it might have been easier for her to let go.
We drift along with Janie in this book, from her current life as a neuroscientist, mother, wife, and colleague. Memories of the past frequently derail her, but she refuses to seek help for her struggles. When Hiroji disappears to go look for his brother in Cambodia, the past tightens its grip on her. She only gets relief by following her friend back to where everything started. As Janie’s attention wanders through her past and present, we learn a lot about her internal battles, how much she still lives in the past, and how much she wants to move on.
There is so much drifting in Dogs at the Perimeter that some readers might get frustrated with the narrator. It’s hard to tell when and where we are at times. This is the point, I think. We need to flail with time and place as much as Janie does to understand the impossibility of leaving a traumatic past behind. Janie’s trauma made her who she is. She’s broken, depressed, and frustrated. Watching her in this state made me terribly sympathetic for her. I wanted to reach into the book and pull her out of her memories. But without those memories, who would Janie be? Would she have become a neuroscientist studying how memories are passed on? Would she have married her husband and had a son? If her childhood had happened a different way, her scientific contributions wouldn’t exist. Her son wouldn’t exist. Janie doesn’t think of things this way, but I have hope that someday, she might.
Notes for Bibliotherapeutic Use: Recommend to readers who have a hard time empathizing with people who’ve been traumatized and can’t see why people can’t just get over it.