One of the questions asked by an Alzheimer’s patient in Dogs at the Perimeter by Madeleine Thien (McClelland & Stewart) is whether there is “any part of me that lasts, that is incorruptible, the absolute centre of who I am?” and this is the question that Janie, a Cambodian refugee and the main character in the book, is compelled to consider.
In 1975, when the civil war in Cambodia ends, the triumphant Khmer Rouge begin recording detailed biographies that will be used to tear away everything and everyone that might inhabit those biographies. Families are split up and sent to work camps to die of exposure, starvation and/or disease, and more than a million people are executed because of who or what they might or might not know or have known; survival can depend on assuming an identity without a past or a future.
This is what Janie leaves behind when she escapes and is sent to Canada at the age of twelve. But thirty years later, memories of the horror push their way to the forefront of her mind again, and Janie leaves her husband and young son and travels back to Cambodia in order to come to terms with her own survival and the losses that fill her memories.
Janie’s story, and that of her friend Hiroji, who himself has been displaced by the bombing of Japan, is told without sentimentality and with an immediacy that pulls us into the story and keeps us there.