My sister Julia du Fresne (or Julie, as she’s known in the family) recently published her first novel, 'The Age for Love', which is available as an e-book. I’m very happy to make this space available to her so that she can spread the word. The book is available from amazon.com or smashwords.com for $2.99 (for a limited period only).
Sheela Tree is the “strange name, a name for keeping strangers company”, chosen for a career in theatre by Marie Cassegrain. Marie is the only daughter of Neils, a New Zealander of Danish Lutheran extraction, and Leila, also born in New Zealand but steeped in Irish Catholicism.
It’s a mix described by a prominent psychologist as a recipe for disaster, an opinion echoed by Sheela’s analyst Max Hatfield, “who thinks she’s just a lush”.
Her years of growing inside what amounts almost to a pale - a Catholic parish in a Hawke’s Bay town in the ’50s and a pre-Vatican II boarding school - are revealed during treatment in her 20s for drug and alcohol addiction.
The “strangers” she comes across include would-be thespian Barrie Gore (with whom she becomes only too familiar), whose father Cosmo is “chairman of the vestry at St Cuthbert’s and a pervert” and his mother Violet, “a collector, a bully and a snob”.
Mystic Graham Mikes reads Juvenal and experiences “divine dazes”; Patrick Blackmoor, director of the NZ Theatre Company, is “a pimp of the sophisticated kind”. We also meet Father Edmund, a monk much given to giggling; Xavier, a French set designer and “man of passions”, and Dr Grayson Lamb, who finds the patients he refers for illegal abortions in Christchurch “passive, even submissive”, and makes the most of the opportunities they afford.
Even Sheela’s family are strangers, or so they seem to “the broom brigade”, the shopkeepers and accountants of the Chamber of Commerce - and to the Power Board, Neils’ employer in “the quintessential Nazareth” of Potangotango.
Her mother’s forté is fainting, often rehearsed but sometimes not; her engineer father might be described as charming, if that were “a word with currency in Potangotango”, while her difficult, disruptive brother Laurence is bipolar and bisexual.
The Catholic Church is examined at a time when, like bulimia and hate speech (not yet invented), there was no whiff of sex abuse. A priest can be ‘fab’ or ‘choleric’, wear a roman collar and get away with it. Sex outside marriage is sinful – and indulged. “You knew people did it, and incredible though it seemed – imagine Mrs Redmond-Hogg, so thin and mild, or Mr Rozbicki with his gumboots, his accent and harelip – even Catholics did it.”
We glimpse New Zealand’s academia in the days of Roger Hall’s Middle-Age Spread and its runaway success; the city of Cologne during WWII, and the hidden life of a little NZ monastery.
Seen through the eyes of a family like the Cassegrains, small-town New Zealand in the ‘50s is anything but dull and grey, as that era is now said to be.
Incidents of a troubled childhood – one of which her mother forbids her to mention - prefigure a teenage pregnancy and illegal abortion. Years later, at the Mas de l’Ange, a commune in France frequented by theatre types and governed in the spirit of Eros by her lover Xavier, Sheela is confronted by a similar dilemma, this time resolved in that same spirit by Xavier, in the US.
But Sheela, who in New Zealand had barely registered the existence of a tangata whenua, is eventually surprised by a “yearning for something unique to Maori” which brings her home again, to the hill where her father had said the sun always came out, in “the most beautiful place in the world”.
Making a vineyard here, guided by the mystic Graham Mikes and an unlikely newcomer, Sheela finds the lives she had lost and new life for herself - but one which those earlier losses mean she may still lose.
Julia du Fresne attended Bill Manhire’s Short Fiction Workshop in its heyday, where her writing was compared favourably with poet Kate Camp’s and playwright Duncan Sarkies’.
“Forget the short story “, said Manhire,”write the novel”.
So she did. Tucked into corners of her life, du Fresne having been surprised by fifth-time motherhood at age 46, it took her all of the 10 years which is the average gestation for a first novel.
Naturally, she submitted The Age for Love first to Bill Manhire, at Victoria University Press. Manhire turned it down. Because, he said - although giving high praise to her writing - not many VUP readers would identify with “the distorted world-view” of the chief character. “Distorted”, that is, because Sheela is highly atypical of VUP heroines: as a cradle Catholic, in her 20s she becomes an apostate but eventually is reconciled with the Church. In other words, politically it’s completely incorrect.
During the years of writing her MS was scrutinised, admired and cheered on by first cousin, short story giant and novelist Yvonne du Fresne. To du Fresne's knowledge The Age for Love is the first in the genre of literary fiction in New Zealand to examine the agonised issue of abortion, suppressed and kept sub rosa as it is by media, publishers and the writing fraternity, all seemingly dominated by ladies of the liberal left.
But just as The Age for Love was rejected by what du Fresne thinks must have been the very last of the shrinking list of print publishers, the first ‘indie’ ebook was launched on the internet. With other demands on her time, especially now as a blogger on the causes and effects of the crisis in the Catholic Church, it’s taken her several more years to get to the launching pad.
So du Fresne believes that at age 73, she might be New Zealand’s oldest-ever writer to publish a debut novel in the genre of literary fiction.
Although graphically detailing abortion and its effects, The Age for Love is not a polemic. It may infuriate you, it may surprise you - and it may even make you laugh.
No one knew, at the Mas de l'Ange. And if they did would they care? At the Mas de l'Ange their common indifference was a construct of the utmost seriousness. At the Mas de l'Ange, there was nowhere for her to go but into the arms of an angel.
She remembers screaming, as scarily demonstrated by Leila as a rational woman's first defence against any assailant (in high register to avoid damage to the vocal cords); she knows she screamed as she ran into the night, that starless European night which is never truly dark but always in some quarter illuminated by a baleful pall of electric and neon lighting. She remembers leaving the dining room that evening, closing the door quietly and carefully behind her before breaking into a run, before opening her mouth to scream, after Xavier had gone from the table between the grilled tuna and the cassoulet with Françoise, to take her as Sheela needed no telling, briefly to bed.
When an hour or so later Xavier found her and carried her back into the house, Francoise and Stan going by her pallor and lack of vital signs decided she was dead, but Xavier knew better and phoned for an ambulance. Soaked to the skin and hypothermic, she was unconscious only - as she would have preferred to remain.
“La betise,” he said. “She’ll survive.”
And she did - after a fashion. So did her child - for a time.
To buy The Age for Love, go to amazon.com or smashwords.com.
Julia du Fresne is a sometime journalist, painter and actor, lately an organist and still a passionate gardener, wife of Hamish Kynoch, mother of five adult children, grandmother of seven, fully-professed lay Carmelite and blogger at www.juliadufresne.blogspot.com.