As Francisco Goldman says midway through his book, all over the world, everyday, people lose loved ones, yet each person's loss is unique. Each of us has a story to tell, a love to honor, and an excruciating path of grief to bear while learning to live without the one who died.
After Aura's death, Goldman read everything he could get his hands on about grieving, and not one of the books could explain how he should deal with having lost the love of his life; so he wrote his own book. It is brilliant, brutal, truthful, and I found great reassurance in his words, as there is no easy or dignified way to bear the insanity that death and loss bring.
Although it is a novel of shattering loss, Say Her Name leaves the impression of a story of lasting love. Francisco and Aura, despite the large age gap between them, find their soul mates in one another; they kindle a deep, satisfying passion, and, together, create that magic combination in which partners bring balance to each other's lives.
The accomplished novelist in his early 50s and the ambitious PhD candidate in her mid-20s had both lived through the unhappy marriages of their parents, through failed relationships of their own, and walked the treacherous paths of aspiring writers. Their combined love of literature and poetry served as text for their union. Destiny enabled the understanding between them.
Of course, all was not roses and moonlight. Francisco's gruff personality had to be smoothed as he practiced being the nurturing man Aura needed. And Aura's mother was very protective of her; they were as close as a mother and daughter could be, communicating daily by phone and email while Aura was in New York, and, whenever Aura left Mexico after a visit, her mother would make the protective sign of the cross over her daughter. She was a devoted but controlling mother with fixed ideas about Aura's future. A husband almost thirty years older did not fit those ideas.
Aura had grown up without her birth father, raised by her mother's new husband and in competition with a stepsister. Her impulsive nature chafed under a mother's control and posed problems for Francisco as well, who needed a certain amount of order in his life to get his writing done. But when they were together, love conquered all. As he relates the story of their four years together, the wonder and delight they found in each other shines through every sentence.
In poetic fragments and reconstructions of memory, Goldman pieces together the cause of Aura's disaster, then takes off into breathless passages of storytelling in which the tale of a great love and a completely unexpected accident come together. Reading Say Her Name is like watching a painting grow on a canvas, and Goldman is a writer in the way that Van Gogh was a painter - slashing streaks of color, ominous shadows, bursts of light, madness, delight, agony, devotion, and delicate detail across his pages.
Many reviewers mention the troublesome novel-versus-memoir question. It is true that Aura Estrada was a real person, as is, of course, Francisco Goldman. But just as certainly, their courting, marriage, and ultimately Aura's tragic death, included many fiction-like qualities. I have no problem with Mr. Goldman displaying his novelistic abilities as he recreates and memorializes the amazing Aura. Though the story begins with the announcement of her death and the accusation by Aura's mother that Francisco is responsible, in true novel form, Goldman makes us wait until the final fifty pages for the details of the actual accident, and, finally, he addresses his guilt. Novel or memoir, masterful writing is what matters here:
Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight, I thought, that's my advice to all the living. Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair, breathe her in deeply. Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it. Same alive as dead, always.
This review was originally published in May 2011, and has been updated for the April 2012 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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