Say Her Name
On August 20, 2005, journalist and novelist Francisco Goldman and Columbia University graduate student Aura Estrada wed in Mexico. On July 25, 2007, Aura died, a day after her neck was broken while body surfing at a resort on Mexico's Pacific Coast. In a novel that possesses the immediacy and power of a memoir, Goldman recounts the story of their passionate, if improbable, love affair and of the nearly insurmountable grief that stalked him after its tragic conclusion.
"In whatever fashion one chooses to read it, SAY HER NAME is distinctive for the unrelenting candor of its journey through the twinned emotions of love and grief."
Francisco and Aura first meet at a literary event in New York City in 2002, and when they encounter each other again in Mexico City nine months later, Aura (a talented writer herself who was at work on a novel at the time of her death and had a story published posthumously in Harper's) is about to embark on studies for a Ph.D. in Latin American literature at Columbia. Goldman lovingly describes the jagged arc of their romance, unveiling Aura's passionate, inquisitive nature in brief, tender glimpses, the joy of their life together always shadowed by the tragedy that's revealed in the book's first sentence.
SAY HER NAME sacrifices strict chronology for an episodic journey over the four years of this relationship (including detours into their lives beforehand). What emerges is a delicate portrait of a young woman enraptured by literature, intensely engaged with life and, above all, committed to the older man who adores her. "Love is a religion," she writes in one of the diary entries Goldman shares. "You can only believe it when you've experienced it."
Goldman is more than two decades older than Aura (only three years younger than her mother), and from the outset, the May-December aspect of their relationship is a source of familial tension. It explodes in the aftermath of Aura's accident, when her mother and an uncle all but accuse him of complicity in the event, summarily ejecting him from the apartment he and Aura occupied during their visits to Mexico City and hinting darkly at their desire for a criminal investigation.
And in the wake of Aura's sudden death, so mundane as to be almost inexplicable, Goldman is cast into a nearly unendurable grief. Along with her friends, he builds an altar to her in their Brooklyn apartment, draping her wedding dress over one of the mirrors ("We were all trying to find Aura in each other, I guess, though I don't think we recognized it"). His recovery is complicated by a hit-and-run accident that nearly kills him. He even drifts into a brief, almost purely sexual relationship with another young woman. For him, there is "No happy memory that isn't infected. A virus strain that has jumped from death to life, moving voraciously backward through all memories, obligating me to wish none of it; my own past, had ever happened."
Unlike Rafael Yglesias, whose 2009 novel, A HAPPY MARRIAGE, is admittedly autobiographical, Goldman has chosen not to alter the names of his principal characters in an account he's emphatically characterized as fiction, and in a recent interview he expressed his frank distaste as a journalist for the "idea of making composite characters, or moving events around in time, exaggerating, and still calling it nonfiction." It's that preference that evidently motivated him to tell his story in novel form, and while the choice gave him the freedom to "fictionalize," perhaps a more compelling reason was his distrust of memory's fallibility, revealed in this searing passage near the book's climax:
"Maybe memory is overrated. Maybe forgetting is better. (Show me the Proust of forgetting, and I'll read him tomorrow.) Sometimes it's like juggling a hundred thousand crystal balls in the air all at once, trying to keep all these memories going. Every time one falls to the floor and shatters into dust, another crevice cracks open inside me, through which another chunk of who we were disappears forever."
In whatever fashion one chooses to read it, SAY HER NAME is distinctive for the unrelenting candor of its journey through the twinned emotions of love and grief. "I need to stand nakedly before the facts; there's no way to fool this jury that I am facing. It all matters, and it's all evidence," Francisco Goldman writes. With the observational skill of a seasoned journalist and the heart and expressive language of the poet, in these pages at least, he conjures his beloved Aura back to life.
Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on April 25, 2011
Say Her Name
- Publication Date: April 10, 2012
- Genres: Fiction
- Paperback: 368 pages
- Publisher: Grove Press
- ISBN-10: 0802145809
- ISBN-13: 9780802145802