Finding this so hard, to précis my thoughts on this book. Should have done it the minute I put it down two days ago. That’s when the real, connected emotion was fresh.
Having a go now…
So there’s this beautiful Polish born woman who has fallen in love with South African literature and South Africa itself and is the obvious choice to meet Andre Brink (sorry, can’t find the accent on the e) and accompany him on a train trip from Vienna to Salzburg where he is to partake in a symposium which she has co-organised. He’s 69, a mere 42 years her senior.
And so begins a love story of tenderness and sharing and travel which she documents alongside her journey of becoming fully fledged writer,… “more than anyone else, he has inspired me to say, proudly and out loud: I am a writer’… until his tragic death ten years later on a flight home from Belgium.
Her story tells of her time of study in Wales…’my initial impressions of narrow roads, rustic cottages, sheep and autumn colours…mythic sounding names and clusters of consonants …’ and her fascination with the sea and bodies of water; her childhood experiences and family bonds, a short-lived marriage and painful divorce, and the development of her relationship with Andre which is intensely and intimately portrayed as precious.
‘Andre and I had it all. We were so happy…’
Her vulnerability and honesty of the task of telling her story of her life with someone who changed the lives of countless readers around the globe, a literary icon, is brave in itself. She questions whether it’s even her story to tell.
But she tells it beautifully and simply in many ways, revealing the love and care they shared for each other and afterwards, the trauma and loss and anguish of trying to come to terms with his death, of being a widow.
I have to admit that I was initially apprehensive about reading this book, not only because I wasn’t in the mood for a grief memoir (perhaps I’m a little scared of these) but because of my ‘reservations’ for want of a better word, of a relationship between a man ‘whose wife was younger than his own children, and who was older than in his in-laws ‘(as he describes in his own memoir ‘Fork in the Road’ written partly through her persuasion in 2010).
How wrong could I have been? I was so moved and engrossed in her story that when I had it in my bag in between reads, I would check on it every now and then to make sure it was there. And I flipped back and forth many times, re-reading the parts that resonated with me, of which there were many: her descriptions and experiences of Wales and water, her intrigue with numbers and lucky numbers and repetitive numbers (1:11), her quirky obsession with Rudolph, her furry friend, the writers whom she admired and books she had read, friends of hers (some of whom I’ve recently met, so odd ) and her own experiences of being a writer…
’That moment when something that was perhaps unpronounceable, hidden, painful or simply delicate is distilled into words, and you do not feel alone any more: as a writer, you have to make yourself extremely vulnerable to offer your reader this kind of experience’ …
And then of course the love story itself: I felt myself envying the complete dedication and unfailing warmth she expressed for him, her appreciation of his beautiful hands and the way he walked.
The Fifth Mrs Brink will stay with me for a long time, and I will try to remind myself that if you are lucky enough to have travelled through your life with someone so special, you must treasure them, because no-one lives forever.
I strongly believe in the timing of books: that you read a book at that time because you were supposed to, for whatever reason. And that books can spark a whole new path of learning which is so tremendously exciting and even life –altering.
Karina may be at her own Fork in the Road but I have no doubt that Andre would be extraordinarily proud of this beautiful memoir and wherever her writing path takes her in the years to follow.