The Unusual Death of Julie Christie and other stories
 by Andrew Michael Hurley

Lime Tree Press
2008, Paperback

Andrew Michael Hurley was born in 1975 and brought up in the North West of England. After living in Manchester and London, he returned to Lancashire, where he makes a living teaching English and writing. He has an MA in Creative Writing from Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU). His stories have been published in magazines such as Libbon, Muse and Positive Space. He is also a regular contributor to Transmission. He has completed two short story collections; Cages and other stories (Lime Tree Press, 2006) and The Unusual Death of Julie Christie and other stories (Lime Tree Press, 2008).

Read an interview with Andrew Michael Hurley

"Lek placed the bag over his head and pulled the ends together tight around his neck, securing it with his mother's rosary, feeling the larger beads - blessed olive stones from gethsemane - digging into his skin."

Reviewed by Diane Becker

There is a current misconception that the short story is an ideal form for the "time poor" reader. It isn’t. Really it isn’t. The brevity of a short story often belies its magnificence and Andrew M Hurley’s second collection The Unusual Death of Julie Christie and Other stories is magnificent and offers staggering opportunities for musing and making sense of the worlds contained within.

But it’s not the characters in Hurley’s stories nor what they do (they could be any of us, anywhere) that I found quite so fascinating as the sinuous, poetic and artful way that the stories emerge from everyday moments like clouds billowing from the nothingness of a clear blue sky.

One of my favourite stories is Dinosaurs. Picture a father (the narrator) and his son reading a book about … dinosaurs. We learn that the child’s mother is absent, leaving "a hole, a crater, that Ed and me stood looking into from opposite sides for a while, dazed and distant as though a bomb had gone off". His new girlfriend Elspeth comes in to the room and starts mending the hem of her best dress.

This is all that happens in the story, on the surface a tranquil scene but the narrator’s thoughts scatter across the page like a dot to dot puzzle and Hurley leaves it to the reader to make the connections, to join up the dots and construct a realistic picture of their relationship – complicated by undercurrents and things glossed over. Of Elspeth (whose deaf ex-boyfriend harasses her by text) the narrator notes that "Things have a habit of flying from her hands when she’s annoyed. There’s a patch on the wall that has a slightly different shade of white where I painted over a streak of rubber left by one of her shoes."

Dinosaurs are so much easier to figure out than people.
"How do they know what colour their skin was?" Elspeth says and closes the book.

"They match their skin with their temperament," I say. "It makes it easier. Green for nice herbivores, black for the ones with sharp teeth."
In Spark Guns two brothers revisiting a childhood haunt find themselves exploring not just past events but their former selves. As in the majority of stories in this collection, the setting is as vivid as the characters and its atmosphere saturates the story evoking links between past and present which trigger the brothers’ memories and emotions;
"The smell of pine sap drifted up from the heap of sawn timber by the wall. Memory makes it molasses thick. And there is vegetation burning somewhere, perhaps a grass heap smoulders by the cabbage patch. Secateurs and a leather glove tossed into a trug of rose stalks. There are windfalls left to rot. Dead bees. And blackbirds fretting over a cat winding through the undergrowth."
There are some dark-edged stories in here too. In Bricks, the image of Lek - a young Polish boy full of repressed anger - using his mother’s rosary beads to secure a plastic bag round his head - is shocking. The story is narrated in the first person, but the author’s decision to use this POV gives the reader insight into why Lek behaves as he does. The underlying theme of darkness also runs through Milk. It’s what prison has left in Roddy:
"Roddy collected the bundles of wood and put them on his shoulder. I did the same with mine and we went back down the track. Roddy walked on ahead. His shadow bled into all the others. It was dark now. Everything around us suffered from it."
The title story from the collection, The Unusual Death of Julie Christie is set in the heat of a Rhodes summer where;
"Saturation point is reached about five o’clock. The island can’t absorb anything more and the heat oozes back out, spreading like lava across the tacky roads and the grey scrubland, collecting in the branches of solitary olive trees and the meat of the goats that pant in their shade."
There is something of a heat haze in the way the story wavers, exploring parallel worlds - where anything, and something strange (no, I’m not going to spoil it) does happen.

I love this sort of writing. Hurley interweaves snippets of conversation with cultural references, the everyday, strands of memory that link past and present - in stories that cross timezones, geographical and social boundaries, and one that strays into a surreal parallel universe. As Babyhead says in Mad Max’s Beyond Thunderdome (which I was watching one night when I was supposed to be reviewing this collection), "Our lives hang by a thread, the flick of a dice, the turn of the wheel …! and more than anything that’s what this collection is about - what it is to be human - and the ways in which we connect and fail to connect with each other.

(This review was first published at Lancashire Writing Hub (2010). Reprinted with kind permission of LWH.)

Diane Becker writes short fiction that has been published in Metazen, flashquake, The Pygmy Giant and 6S Vol 2. She is deputy editor of The Short Review.

Diane's other Short Reviews: Cliff Garstang "In An Uncharted Country"

Susan Wicks "Roll Up for the Arabian Derby"
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