Say Her Name
by Francisco Goldman
Reviewed by Kassten Alonso
"Aura died on July 25, 2007."
Thus opens Francisco Goldman's fourth novel, Say Her Name, its subject his ambitious, spirited young wife, Aura Estrada, and her accidental death while the couple was on vacation in Mexico.
Although Goldman's first novel, The Long Night of White Chickens, incorporates details from his life, Say Her Name is decidedly autobiographical. The reader may even feel compelled to shelve this book alongside nonfiction works of overwhelming loss and grief, such as Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, or Joyce Carol Oates' A Widow's Story.
Interestingly, portions of Goldman's latest novel appear virtually word-for-word as "The Wave," an essay recently published in the New Yorker. Wait. Here it's fiction, there it's memoir? Goldman asserts in an interview, "Not all the facts (in the novel) are true. I didn't do everything the character does. I didn't quit my job. I didn't live off Aura's savings."
Nonetheless, the incongruity distracts; questions disrupt the novel's dream. At what point does the fabrication of even picaresque or piddling details outweigh major plot drivers cemented in fact? Will just one fib tip the scales, the way a spot of bread mold signifies the whole loaf is tainted?
Whether truth or invention, Goldman by no means glamorizes his narrative self, describing Francisco as "hairy-belly-hanging-over-bathing-suit and winter-pale barrel-torso ...." He vilifies himself for his lack of maturity, accepting Aura's mother Juanita's assessment of him as a ninote, a man-boy who never grew up, accepting in stunned silence Juanita's accusation that he caused Aura's death, sleeping with Aura's married friends to "cope" with his loss, drinking like a fish, quitting his teaching job, living on Aura's savings.
Nor does Goldman idealize his relationship: both Franciscos were almost twice as old as both Auras when they met. Aura-of-the-novel was alternately embarrassed by the age difference -- coaxing Frank to dye his hair black before their wedding -- and worried that the old duffer might kick at any moment ("Shouldn't she think ahead, spare herself that ordeal?"). In other ways, Goldman reveals theirs was not a perfect relationship. Yet, Frank and Aura were happy and in love and looking toward the future.
Then Aura was gone. Undone by anguish, Francisco, clutching onto everything he can -- Aura's wedding dress, her witticisms, her writings -- even treasures Aura in a container of facial cleanser: "I found the indentations of Aura's scooping fingers like fossils in the scrub's slushy, coconut-hued surface. ..." He discovers Aura inhabiting a tree, Cheshire Cat-like, on the way to his brownstone: "I found Aura in that tree, her smile and shining eyes floating among the branches ... and I always stopped to kiss the trunk."
At the same time, Frank abandons the cafes, clubs and corner stores he and Aura used to frequent because he can't bear the employees sending Aura their regards -- or the growing puzzlement regarding her whereabouts.
The circular or nonlinear narrative structure for which Goldman is known works to great effect in Say Her Name -- in one instance, scenes depicting his grief bookend his and Aura's wedding two years earlier, compressing time to emphasize what little time they had together.
The untimely death of Aura or any person filled with so much love and promise is a terrible thing, and pierces us with fear and longing for our own loved ones. Readers who are survivors may reopen wounds new or old, or perhaps take comfort in knowing they aren't alone. Readers who've been fortunate enough to avoid such pain -- knock on wood -- should take their honey in their arms, squeeze them tight, and don't ever let go.