The writer Yvonne du Fresne died on Sunday, aged 81. Her funeral will be held at the Harbour City chapel on the corner of Cockburn Street and Onepu Rd, Kilbirnie, at 2pm on Thursday (tomorrow).
After winning the PEN best first book award for her 1980 short-story collection Farvel, she was twice runner-up in the NZ Book Awards, first for the 1982 novel The Book of Ester and then for the 1985 short-story collection The Growing of Astrid Westergaard. Her books are suffused with her Danish-French Huguenot background: in her last published book, the 1996 novel Motherland, Astrid returns to Denmark and has a reunion with her Danish relatives. There is a last novel which she worked on for years but remains unpublished.
She will probably be remembered most for her short stories which Maurice Gee calls “beautifully fresh stuff, unlike anything we’d had before. Danes in New Zealand and back home were her true subject, the thing that lit her up. Her writing, especially those early stories, is unique.”
In his introduction to Farvel, Bill Manhire writes:
Like the oldest Norse tales, the Farvel stories have all the flair and pace of oral narrative . . . But a better way of describing their effect might be to borrow the image of embroidery which appears so often in them. Farvel is like a tapestry, with fresh scenes being added story by story until at the last the richness of a complex picture is revealed. And Yvonne du Fresne’s language can be like a needle flashing in and out of linen. Her writing has the intense, controlled exuberance of one of her Danish women at work on a piece of tapestry – human energy directed well.
Nina Nola writes in the Oxford Companion to NZ Literature:
Critics operating from realist premises have struggled both with the blurred borderline between reality and fantasy, and the claim of Danish spiritual affinity with Maori in the two novels [Ester and Frédérique]. While they consistently celebrate du Fresne's sharp and exciting language, humorously employed to look ironically at herself and her community, they are frequently uncomfortable with her construction of an indomitable immigrant community identity and its mythical connection to another place, a superior homeland that is not England. This depiction of difference is a deliberate negotiation of New Zealandness in a distinctive style of voice du Fresne calls her “Danish clonk”.