Book review - Last Fling by Sue Gee

Sue Gee is best known for novels such as Earth and Heaven, The Hours of the Night and The Mysteries of Glass, but she demonstrates the same flair in this debut collection of short stories.

She writes with great compassion about love lost and found, regret, missed opportunities and mortality.

Artists and musicians feature alongside disappointed housewives, neglected children and errant husbands. Some of the stories are set in the past, in a barely remembered rural England, where Gee evokes the "simplicity and routine" of country life. Others describe a contemporary urban isolation.

There is a lyrical quality to much of Gee's writing, such as when she compares enduring marriages to great houses: "with time to spare you can wander from room to quiet room, follow cool corridors to spacious kitchen, lofty dining rooms, with a place at the table for everyone. There is a study where you can be by yourself, there are doors which lead out to the graceful garden, and paths to the contemplation of water."

Many of Gee's characters are assailed by doubts and loneliness. "In Bratislava" involves a fleeting but intense sexual encounter between a businessman and a student. "For Life" conveys the dull ache of bereavement. In the title story, Fran, dying of cancer, places a lonely-hearts ad. She dreams of meeting someone who will share her final months with her, going for walks and dinner.

Gee's skilful use of voice reveals her characters' inner states with remarkable economy, and she writes about feelings of loss with acuity. One character's profound grief is described as "a great loosening inside her, as if an ice floe had come adrift and was floating always, unstoppably, beneath the darkest sky". In "Pegwell Bay", a neglected child looks out to the sea and experiences "a strange sort of feeling – an emptiness".

Although there is an elegiac tone to many stories, others are curiously uplifting. Gee's eye for detail makes the commonplace seem resplendent and in writing about death she gently persuades you to celebrate life. In simple prose, she evokes many of the beautiful things in life we take for granted.

Weaving stories out of emotions and feelings, Gee writes about ordinary people's lives with a rare delicacy. Her carefully crafted tales encompass both the simple pleasures to be had from life, "the smell of summer grass!" or "the first wind of autumn", and the bitter regrets when it becomes time to leave it.

Originally published in the Independent Monday, 9 May 2011