The world of Madeline Sonik’s unsettling volume of short fiction, the town of Fontainebleau, is menacing, tragic, violent and surreal. These seventeen linked stories chronicle the traumas, tormented longings and reckless escapades of the anguished adults, freaks of nature, psychos, juvenile delinquents, lost and frightened children, and at least one haunted police officer, who live there. Fontainebleau is a dead-end place, blighted, ill-starred, ramshackle and dangerous: a place that breeds desperation and engenders boredom, despair, sometimes wild and irrational hope, among its unlucky inhabitants—a place that people escape from rather than to—a place where a dead body, sawn in half, turns up in the river.
In Fontainebleau, people prey on one another or try to. “Air Time,” which tells a lurid tale of a pair of sleazy hustlers plying two teenage girls with drinks at a neighbourhood bar with the intention of drugging them and using them to make a porn film, ends with an ironic twist. In “King Rat,” naïve, deluded Lynette either can’t or won’t accept that her boyfriend, Steve, has abandoned her and baby Jess; though, despite her state of denial, she is not shy about giving relationship advice to her gay friend Brian.
Many characters appear in multiple stories. Brothers Kevin and Jimmy Robinson both end up dead, Kevin in a freakish accident (“Slick”), Jimmy under very suspicious circumstances (“Murder”). Perhaps the book’s most vividly imagined and volatile household is the one that sisters Lizzie, Audrey, Suzy and Celeste share with their reclusive, alcoholic mother. The house is at the end of Monica Street, next to a field, where the youngest sister, Celeste, who is afflicted with mermaid syndrome (or Sirenomelia: a congenital defect in which the legs are fused together), communes with the crows. The field is a magical, terrible, beautiful place. After Celeste disappears, Lizzie becomes obsessed with finding her and focuses her search there, losing herself in the process. Later, after their mother’s death, in the story “Misdirection,” Suzy has the property excavated, illegally digging up native artifacts that she plans to sell. Roger Foley, the policeman, who appears in several stories, suffers from visions and strange out-of-body experiences and obsesses about the dead. He is also fixated on Lizzie, who can’t stand him.
Sonik has written a story sequence that creates its own distinctive and disturbing mythology. Reading the book is somewhat like taking a ride through a nightmarish urban landscape littered with corpses and festering with secrets. Undeniably, the book leaves an indelible impression on the reader. In Fontainebleau, Madeline Sonik displays absolute control over some very slippery material, writing eloquently and sensitively of the darkness at the heart of the human experience and showing us how our actions can be driven by forces and impulses beyond our control and beyond our understanding.
Madeline Sonik is an award-winning and eclectic writer, anthologist, and teacher, who lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Her books include a novel, Arms; short fiction, Drying the Bones; a children’s novel, Belinda and the Dustbunnys; two poetry collections, Stone Sightings and The Book of Changes. Her volume of personal essays, Afflictions & Departures, was nominated for the BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, was a finalist for the Charles Taylor Prize, and won the 2012 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize.
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