Dogs at the Perimeter, by Madeleine Thien

34068494Janie 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.

Music of the Ghosts, by Vaddey Ratner

Vaddey Ratner’s Music of the Ghosts is the story of two parallel lives that were caught by the apocalyptic violence of the Khmer Rouge but managed to survive, albeit with deep psychological wounds. Music of the Ghosts moves back and forth between the late 1970s and the present day as these two people—a woman who fled to the United States as a child and an old man who fought with the Khmer Rouge—reveal their connections to each other and seek healing.

Suteera fled with her mother when the Khmer Rouge evacuated the entire city of Phnom Penh in 1975. Shortly thereafter, she and her aunt were helped over the border into Thailand. Thirty years later, Suteera receives a letter from the abbot of a Buddhist monastery in Phnom Penh. An old musician has a legacy for her from her father, who disappeared shortly before the Khmer Rouge takeover. When she reluctantly returns to Cambodia, Suteera finds herself awash in unexpressed grief and memories. The old musician, it turns out, knew her father from before the civil war and was imprisoned with him in one of the Khmer Rouge’s notorious prisons. Not only does the musician have a legacy to pass on, he also needs to confess what he did to survive to Suteera.

While Suteera copes with her past and present, the old musician gets to tell his story—from his decision to join the Khmer Rouge to his ultimate betrayal by the Organization. I found these parts harrowing but fascinating. I’ve never read anything, fiction or otherwise, about the Khmer Rouge. Given how terrifying and brutal the regime was, fiction was a soft landing for me. Music of the Ghosts gives us an ant’s eye view of those bloody years. Ratner’s characters do not try to explain much of the ideology of the Khmer Rouge. Rather, this book presents that time as chaotic, deadly insanity.

The old musician’s flashbacks are the most gripping part of this book. However, much of this book is about how he and Suteera have learned to make space in their psyches for those terrible years. They haven’t forgiven themselves or the Organization for what happened. I don’t blame them a bit, which is why I found the ending of this book too easy considering what the protagonists had been through. I’m not about to say what a survivor should feel; I know that I’m not a very forgiving person myself so my perspective is skewed. My problem with the way the book wrapped was that it was rushed.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.


The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright

Camron Wright’s uneven tale of redemption and education, The Rent Collector, is set in the very real garbage dump of Stung Meanchay, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Sang Ly and her husband, Ki Lim, eke out a living picking recyclables out of the garbage. Most of their money goes to pay the rent for their shack on the borders of the dump. Their son is constantly ill and the family often have to use their rent money to pay for medicine. But everything changes on the day the rent collector threatens them with eviction when Sang Ly finds a children’s book among the trash.

The book leads to a bargain between Sang Ly and the rent collector, Sopeap Sin. In exchange for the book, Sopeap Sin will teach Sang Ly how to read. Sang Ly believes that education (via reading) will help the family find a way out of Stung Meanchay. The grouchy drunk Sopeap reluctantly agrees, because the book has sentimental value for her. Over a few short chapters, a rough friendship developed between the renter and the landlady.

While there are some beautiful moments towards the end of The Rent Collector, the book did not work for me. Sang Ly’s character wavers between illiterate naif and precocious savant. Most of the exposition sounds like it comes straight out of a journalistic exposé. If my book club hadn’t picked this book for this month, I would have dropped it within twenty pages.

The only character in The Rent Collector that rang true to me was Sopeap Sin, former literature professor/Khmer Rouge victim/rent collector. She’s the only character with any depth. She’s prickly and profound by turns. She’s haunted by what she had to do to survive the Khmer Rouge, to the point where she won’t pursue further treatment for her cancer. (There are further revelations about Sopeap Sin’s attempts to atone at the end of The Rent Collector.)

Unfortunately, Sopeap Sin is not the narrator and we don’t see enough of her to off-set the bland goodness of Sang Ly and Ki Lim or the barely described misery of life in Stung Meanchay. With the exception of the eponymous rent collector, this book was shallow as a slick of oil on a puddle.