Author Madeleine Thien puts the dogs at the perimeter

Madeleine Thien

First aired on North by Northwest (06/05/11)

What happens when the world you know falls apart? In her latest novel, author Madeleine Thien traces the fragments of a shattered life and the painstaking process of putting the pieces together again.

The Vancouver fiction writer won four awards — including the City of Vancouver Book Award, the VanCity Book Prize and the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize — for her literary debut, Simple Recipes, a collection of short stories. She followed up with her first novel, Uncertainty, which won the in Canada First Novel Award and the Ovid Festival Prize. Her latest book, Dogs at the Perimeter, deals with the 1970s in Cambodia, during the Khmer Rouge's reign of terror. The novel follows Janie, who, as a child, witnessed the turmoil first-hand. As readers, we see the political upheaval through her flashbacks, and the effects it has on her current life.

In a recent interview with Sheryl MacKay on North by Northwest, Thien explained that she wrote on this topic because she has always been curious about Cambodia. "When I was younger, I spent a lot of time traveling in Southeast Asia. My family is from Malaysia and Hong Kong. I would keep going back to Southeast Asia and kept circling around Cambodia."

Cambodia struck her as both complex and fascinating. "It's one of those places where you couldn't make any judgment at face value — things constantly shifted your perspective, people were very complicated, surfaces were not always what they seemed," she said. But she also added that Cambodia was the most comfortable place she's travelled to: "I felt something really peculiar and special there."

Thien came to the title of her novel while writing a scene about the protagonist, Janie. In 1976, Janie, who went by a different name at the time, was escaping the Khmer Rouge regime by boat. It is the last time she'll ever see Cambodia. "What [Janie] remembers is not the horror that she just lived through," Thien said. "She remembers the time before war, and she remembers her parents, and she remembers beauty." Janie learns "how important it was to guard that beauty and put the dogs at the perimeter."

After Janie left Cambodia she settled in Vancouver with a Canadian family and grew up to become a scientific researcher. The Khmer Rouge broke the bonds of family and society, and 30 years later, Janie is attempting to recreate these bonds. She does this through her search for her missing friend, neurologist Hiroji Matsui, and his brother.

Thien intended to start the novel with the neurologist who disappears. "I had been thinking about what happens when the fractures in a person's life can no longer be contained," she said. "I had this idea that it would begin with him, and Janie would come in and pick up the pieces of his life." But as she wrote more and more, Thien said that she realized "it was Janie's story that emerges and needed to be told... She becomes the only person, in a sense, who can pick up the pieces of his life. She knows what it means to disappear."

While writing Dogs at the Perimeter, Thien often found herself wondering if Janie would be OK in the end. "There are pieces of stable ground, and I hope that's what I bring her. At the close of the novel is one of these islands of very stable, very solid, very loving ground."

Dogs at the Perimeter

Dogs at the Perimeter

Madeleine Thien

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From McClelland & Stewart:

"Dogs at the Perimeter is a beautifully realized and deeply affecting novel about the multiple lives we carry within ourselves. Spare and haunting, intimate and profound, it is an unblinking portrait of loss and recovered humanity that confirms Madeleine Thien as one of the most exciting young novelists in Canada."


Read more at McClelland & Stewart

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