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More than a memoir, it is a study of grief: Michele Magwood talks to Karina Szczurek about her book The Fifth Mrs Brink

The age gap raised eyebrows, but as Karina Szczurek eloquently writes, her love for Brink was pure. By Michele Magwood for the Sunday Times

The Fifth Mrs BrinkThe Fifth Mrs Brink
Karina M Szczurek, Jonathan Ball Publishers
*****

When André Brink died unexpectedly on a flight from Europe in 2015, the literary world mourned the passing of one of its great writers. A flood of tributes and remembrances poured out, obituaries detailed his outstanding career, people lauded his books and awards, his life story was revisited, anecdotes were told, quotes were quoted. But for those who knew André there was a question being asked again and again: “How is Karina?”

Karina Szczurek met Brink when she was 27 and he was 69. There were sneers from those who could not understand the relationship but anyone who spent time with the couple realised that it was a great love. “People who knew us said that it didn’t make sense until they were together with us and then it did make sense,” she says.

An elderly neighbour thought she was an escort that Brink had picked up; another friend that she was an Eastern European mail-order bride. They soon learned that she has a doctorate, speaks four languages and is an esteemed writer and critic.

Szczurek is a graceful, composed woman, who carries herself with a quiet dignity. In this frank and tender memoir she charts their 10-year marriage and the near breakdown she experienced after his death. In doing so the book is more than a memoir, it is a study of grief and loss, describing the splintering pain of bereavement, yawning loneliness and finally the inching climb to wholeness.

In the process she hollows herself out, holding nothing back, charting her disintegration.

“It moves in with you. A creature you did not invite, cannot control or tame. Grief is wild and unpredictable, at first completely inscrutable. It speaks an unknown language and renders yours inadequate. But in the beginning there is silence. After the shattering, all languages become inadequate. You have to learn everything anew. It is impossible to speak if you cannot breathe. ‘Weduwee’, the first word torn out of death’s ribs. Widow.”

She cannot wash Brink’s handkerchiefs, can’t talk about him in the past tense. She stands, catatonic, in the aisles of the supermarket, and cannot read or write. She mislays things, hurts herself doing chores around the house, leaves notes to herself that get lost. She causes a serious accident and writes off their car. Her house – always so safe when Brink was alive – is robbed.

When Szczurek was 10 her family fled communist Poland, crossing the border illegally into Austria where they lived in refugee camps for two years. They were granted asylum in the US and it was there that she was introduced to reading. She had had little interest in books but a librarian in their small town pressed one into her hand and suggested she start to read.

She tells the story now of how, in 2011, she and Brink returned to the town and found the librarian. “Twenty years later I was able to give her one of my books and say ‘thank you, you did this’.”

The family lasted just four years in the US, her parents barely making a living, so they moved to Austria. Szczurek, now set on an academic career, studied in Wales and then in Salzburg, which is where she discovered South African literature. When she fetched Brink from a train station for a conference, it was, she insists, “love at first sight”.

Her memories of their time together glow on the page: of meals in Paris and baths at 3am; of watching Fawlty Towers for the 100th time, of Brink hoarding light bulbs and hotel soaps, of their writing routine. But she writes, too, of his failing health. Shingles, small strokes, a painful knee operation. They have financial worries, he loses confidence in his writing. She is honest when she says his growing frailty terrified her – and him.

She is grateful that when he was dying she was with him, could tell him he was not alone, that she loved him.

“Experiencing the death of another human being has made me slightly less afraid of the future,” she says. “And it does feel as if two-and-a-half years later there is something like peace, some kind of healing is happening.”

This is a beautiful book. Searing, sad, but ultimately hopeful, it is an eloquent testimony to love and to life.

Follow @michelemagwood

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