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  1. Book ImageDogs at the Perimeter: A Novel

    Madeleine Thien

    The second novel by the Man Booker Prize shortlisted author Madeleine Thien is "beautiful, deeply moving, [and] addresses universal questions" (Independent).

Discussion Questions

  1. What different ways of understanding the self and the soul and their relation to the body does the novel explore? How do these conceptions manifest in the narrative?
  2. Why is the story of Vesna Vulovic, the woman who survived a fall from a plane, so meaningful for Janie?
  3. Winter, snow, and whiteness feature in Madeleine Thien’s descriptions throughout the novel. Why did she choose this imagery? How is it juxtaposed with the lushness of the Cambodian jungle?
  4. How does Janie describe her memories of the Khmer Rouge? What scenes does she paint, and what language does she use? How does she reveal her emotions about the experience and inhabit the perspective of a child?
  5. In one encounter with Khmer Rouge soldiers, Janie recalls, “Our religion was Buddhism and it taught us that life was suffering and that the cycle was eternal and would continue no matter our individual destinies. For the first time in my life, I saw the cycle, I saw its end, a lake, a nothingness on which we hovered.” What does she mean by this? How does Buddhism inform her interpretation of the events and her life, and how does this interpretation vary over time?
  6. How do changing identities become a mode of survival under the Khmer Rouge? Is it a practical or an emotional response? Are names necessary for a sense of self? How, as Hiroji learns, do names change their meaning to Nuong and his countrymen?
  7. Responding to the Angkar’s demands, Janie wanted to ask, “How can we save ourselves and still begin again, how can we keep one piece and abandon all the rest?” Did she succeed in saving herself? Is she still essentially the same person?
  8. What does the book’s title refer to? What are the “dogs at the perimeter” guarding?
  9. Why are language and loss of language themes in this novel? What happens to the people who lose language? How does it affect their personhood?
  10. Hiroji tells his students about a patient who struggled to remember language. This patient’s doctor wrote a medical text with him and hoped that this would help him “not only remember his life, but [. . .] make a wholeness of it. Neurologically, Hiroji said, it was possible for the world outside to fragment, to splinter, and yet for the self to remain intact.” What does it mean to “make a wholeness” of life? Why is written narrative a tool for this? And how can the self stay intact when everything else is forgotten?
  11. How do you explain and how do you interpret the scene in which Hiroji buys food for a man he thinks is his brother? Why does he do it? How does this episode tie into the book’s larger themes of memory, trauma, and identity?
  12. How would you characterize Janie’s relationship with her son? Why did she hit him? How did she react when she did it? Where does her anger come from, and why does it boil over in that moment?
  13. Many of the novel’s characters have emigrated from or fled their country of origin and now live between two worlds. How do they navigate their multicultural identities and maintain ties to both places?
  14. Describe James and Sorya’s relationship. Why did they get married? Do they love each other?
  15. How do James, Janie, and her family make decisions in the life-threatening and emotionally devastating situations they encounter? What values, instincts, and needs guide them?
  16. Which portion of the narrative was most interesting to you, or resonated with you most? Why? Who was writing the fragments? How did they come together?
  17. Why do you think Thien chose to write Hiroji, James, and Janie as researchers and doctors? What roles do medicine, healing, and observation play throughout the narrative?
  18. The Angkar says, “Attachment is what will expose you as a traitor to the revolution, to the change that is coming, that is here. Attachment to the world is a crime.” Do you think the characters internalized this mantra? If so, how does it affect their lives and relationships?
  19. Thien seamlessly interweaves present experiences with flashbacks to the past. What effect does this have? Do you like the use of this style?
  20. Some of Hiroji’s professors believe that because suffering is, in part, a consequence of chemistry, a pill or surgery can block it out. What do you think of this perspective?

About Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien is the author of three novels and a collection of stories, and her work has been translated into twenty-five languages. Her most recent novel, Do Not Say We Have Nothing, was shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize. She lives in Montreal, Canada.

Books by Madeleine Thien

  1. Book CoverDo Not Say We Have Nothing: A Novel

    Winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize and the Governor General's Literary Award // Finalist for the Man Booker Prize and the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction

    "A powerfully expansive novel…Thien writes with the mastery of a conductor." —New York Times Book ReviewMore

  2. Book CoverDogs at the Perimeter: A Novel

    The second novel by the Man Booker Prize shortlisted author Madeleine Thien is "beautiful, deeply moving, [and] addresses universal questions" (Independent).More