Anvil Press Publishers Inc, 2020
Reviewed by Isaac Maschek
Madeline Sonik sets her misanthropic and heartbreaking short story collection in the fictional Ontario city of Fontainebleau, along the Detroit river. Each story follows a citizen of the city through traumas relived and repressed, from idealistic cops to heartbroken vandals. Sonik makes it easy to sympathize with even the most troubled individuals, and weep for the good-hearted souls trapped by Fontainebleau’s pull.
Fontainebleau presents an immoral world where every human is a monster and every monster is humanized. The world Sonik describes is dark and grim,and plays with perspective, unreliable narrators, and characters that cross over between stories, making it read like a novel more often than not.
A lesser writer would fall into preachiness, but Sonik leaves the readers to make up their own minds. Rather than persuade them to feel sympathy for the disadvantaged, Sonik shows her characters as they are, warts and all. While this sometimes leads to sudden shifts in reader perspective, the complex characterization is worth the effort.
Each short story is told from a different point of view, and the fluctuating timing and narration can make it seem as if each of the stories is unconnected, which makes it all the more satisfying when they eventually do align. Fontainebleau sows a paranoia in the reader not unlike that of its characters.
Unsurprisingly, Sonik’s poetic talents are on full display as she focuses on the most important details and poetically sings them home, hard-hitting for their contrast without being too dissonant.
Readers drawn to soft crime novels and subtle horror set in the real world will find Fontainebleau to their liking. The book dabbles with the supernatural, but never fully commits to it, or “explains the monster.” The terrifying elements are very human – making them all the more unsettling. Fontainebleau both benefits from rereads and has the makings of an excellent if atypical book club read.
Sonik is an accomplished poet, non-fiction, and fiction writer from Detroit. Her experimental non-fiction Afflictions and Departures was longlisted for the 2012 BC National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction, shortlisted for the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize, and winner of the 2012 City of Victoria Butler Book Prize. She currently teaches at the University of Victoria’s Department of Writing.