Review: God Isn't Here Today by Francine Cunningham

Review: God Isn’t Here Today by Francine Cunningham

Publisher: Invisible Publishing

My Quick Take: Sometimes touching but often horrific, these stories were like a sucker punch in the gut…and I loved it. One of my favourite books of the year.

The author has created a playlist to accompany the stories! Find it here.   


Earlier this year, I read Francine Cunningham’s poetry collection On/Me, and I was taken with her openness in the way that she let the reader see her struggle with internal uncertainty. For me, this uncertainty was represented by multiple representations of existing in a liminal space, the border between two things, and having to hold both at once. At the end of my review, I felt that there was some start to moving through this, but that it was just a beginning. From my review:
"Cunningham is able to begin to see a way out of this in-between-ness of things, but I got the sense that this is just the beginning. A work in progress rather than something finished. It struck me as a sort of acceptance of flux and uncertainty , and our necessity of living with the dialectics all of us face in different ways."
I made reading her first short story collection, God Isn’t Here Today, a priority. I wanted to see where she might take these themes. I went into the book blind; I didn’t even read the synopsis on the back. My expectation was of something quietly literary, perhaps with a slight edge. One of my favourite literary experiences is to sink into great writing with a bit of an edge. Prose that takes a fine scalpel to the niceties, delicately cutting away at convention.

In this collection, sometimes…sometimes Cunningham used a fine scalpel. Occasionally there was no blade at all, just a fine touch, a caress of a story. The first story, the titular, "God Isn’t Here Today," was gentle. A young man seeks an audience with god but the sign on the office door declares that god is not in today. What he finds is the company of another god-seeker. Everyone wants answers or absolution. They don’t find god, but they find counsel and comfort in each other, to a degree. Connection and compassion, rather than divine intervention, provide some relief.

And then suddenly, in some stories, I was being chased with a figurative hacksaw by a literary monster who wanted to tear down barriers and expose the rot inside the facade of the normal. Murderous prose! It was brutal, but in the best possible way. I was stunned by a story about an ice cream truck man at the end of his rope. It was short and nasty and I won’t look at a power drill the same way again (you just have to read it for yourself, and you’ll see what I mean). And the awfulness of, "Love, Transparent," took a second reading to soak in. The narrator has rationalised their actions:
"You realize it’s easier to love someone after they’re dead. You don’t have to deal with anything but the purity of your love. Entwined in your memories and in the space beside your body, you can sleep soundly. With every memory you relive in your mind, with every slide of your finger down his cold cheek, your love only gets stronger."
Often with good horror, the true awfulness is in the actions of other people rather than monsters or the metaphysical. This was so evident in, "Pornorama," which started as a beautiful story of something with achingly good potential against the backdrop of tawdriness and insecurity. It turned into something menacing, a sweet fruit turned rotten, showing the sour underbelly of human nature.

Cunningham is building a world with common themes running through her writing, and there’s a richness of subtle connections that link some stories. Characters sometimes recur, and there are echoes of certain scents that tie things together. I can also understand God Isn’t Here Today in relation to my reading of her poetry collection. As she did in On/Me, she writes here about liminal space. This time, it is the border between physical and psychical: the porous membrane between life and death. And god is not there, at least obviously. Rather, it is human connection that tethers us between those two realms. In, "Mickey’s Bar," life and death are tethered by organ donation: donor and recipients commune. I was so moved by, "In Remembrance," as death is transmogrified into art in a most affecting and surprising way.

The book finishes on a once-again gentle note, as if to ground the reader and provide a modicum of reassurance after a wild, violent and unsettling ride. "The Death Of Him Came To Me In My Dreams," shows us grief and fear, but ultimately peace in moving through the space between life and death.
"I pull my eyes from the distant light. It is worth it to look into your eyes one more time. You look different. Lighter. Your shoulders are straight like in the photograph I love…Your face is the one I’ve always known, kind and thoughtful, but unlined now.

You pull me into a tight hug, then release me. Go, my girl. You can’t stay for this part. Not until it’s your turn to be led."
This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and it’s only her second publication. I’d love this book to get wider recognition. If this is how Francine Cunningham is beginning as a writer, I cannot wait to see what frenetic literary ride she takes us on next. She writes, at the end:

"All their clamouring voices fill me to empty.

I scream shut up shut up shut up–fine.

All their clamouring voices, written at last,
as the final letter stamps the page.

But why do I hear them still? All these clamouring voices."


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