Saturday, May 07, 2011

Thien strong enough to let ambiguity stand

Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION
Reviewed by: Ariel Gordon

Dogs at the Perimeter
By Madeleine Thien
McClelland & Stewart, 256 pages, $30

MONTREAL-BASED Madeleine Thien's second novel is a fractured and fragmented story that inhabits both 1970s Cambodia and modern-day Montreal.

Thien's debut novel, 2006's Certainty, was about integration, her characters dealing with grieving and loss at a safe remove.

In Dogs at the Perimeter, however, Thien locates her main character - and so also her readers - mid-mental breakdown.

Janie is the only member of her family to survive the Khmer Rouge's reign in her native Cambodia. After she escapes to Malaysia, Janie is adopted by a Vancouver scientist and also becomes a scientist.

Eventually making her way to Montreal, Janie works under Japanese-Canadian neurologist Hiroji Matsui.

Matsui's research focuses on how memory and personality are tied to brain function and how those aspects of who we are can change after an injury to or disease of the brain.

But Janie and Hiroji have something besides work in common: Hiroji's brother Junichiro, a Red Cross doctor working in Cambodia, went missing during the Khmer Rouge period.

(Sound convoluted? It wouldn't be a Madeleine Thien novel if it weren't.)

Hiroji functions as a prop for the orphaned and disjointed Janie, has allowed her to find a career and an address, a husband and a child.

Janie has never reconciled all the pieces of her identity, all the times and places she's lived in and lived through.

But Hiroji is just as disjointed, dividing his adult life into two categories: when he is actively looking for his brother and when he is not.

Neither mode is satisfying and so, as the book opens, he abandons his entire North American existence: job, house, pet.

His disappearance triggers Janie's breakdown. As she reels, leaving her husband and child, working long hours on little sleep, we learn that Janie is her third name.

Before that, she was Mei, a name given to her in the Khmer Rouge camps as a part of their attempts at social engineering. Before that? We don't know: either Janie has forgotten or she needs to keep it private.

Janie learns that naming and numbering what happened to her, what happened to Hiroji and Junichiro and her own lost brother Sopham, is enough to keep her sane.

And this is the difference between Thien's novel and such recent Vietnam War-themed novels as Johanna Skibsrud's The Sentimentalists and David Bergen's The Time in Between. Janie is not the child of trauma, guessing at the motivations of a damaged (and somewhat complicit) parent.

The damage here is raw and immediate, even if Janie is revisiting it from a remove of 30 years.

Furthermore, Janie was a child and a non-combatant: she grew up into the trauma, unlike the foreign soldiers of Bergen's and Skibsrud's books.

Which is not to say that Thien, whose parents immigrated to Canada from Malaysia, doesn't allow her characters ambiguity: Janie, for instance, badly scares her young son during her breakdown.

Those stunning scenes, where Janie is only fleetingly sane, recalls the moment in Sandra Birdsell's The Chrome Suite (1992) where the main character realizes that she cannot keep herself from hurting her child.

Here and in Certainty, Thien's broken characters are lucky: they have spouses and extended families that are gently forgiving of the dark behaviours damage can elicit.

Thien conveys the sense that both Janie and Hiroji might be able to cobble together enough of the pieces of themselves to stay sane.

But they might not. And Thien is a brave and strong enough writer to let that final ambiguity stand.

Winnipeg writer Ariel Gordon won this year's Aqua Books Lansdowne Prize for Poetry at the Manitoba Book Awards.

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