I was first intrigued by Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name when I saw the genres it was listed under, two of which included “literary fiction” and “memoir.” If you’re doing a double take and trying to sort that one out in your head, I assure you, so did I. Truth be told, I kind of still am–the best way I can describe it is an autobiographical novel that reads like a memoir. But categorizing Say Her Name in the right box is largely irrelevant because in the end, the book takes on a life of its own in the form of a spirited young woman named Aura Estrada.
In 2007, just a month shy of their two-year wedding anniversary, the author and his wife took a much-anticipated vacation to the beaches of Mazunte, Mexico. While the couple was bodysurfing in the waves, Aura broke her neck in a freak accident and died the next day. In the months that followed Goldman sunk deeper and deeper into his grief, mourning the loss of his vivacious young wife while dealing with accusations from Aura’s mother and uncle that her death had been his fault.
The book takes readers into the depths of Goldman’s grief, but it also celebrates Aura’s life and the fleeting years she and Goldman had together. Aura was a PhD student from Mexico and a promising writer. She was fiercely intelligent and impulsive; everyone was drawn to her. Goldman was much older, but he was immediately taken with her when they first met, and the two eventually began a relationship that was bursting with love. The book celebrates her quirks and her desires and recounts the volatile realms of her past; when it is over, you’ll feel like you knew Aura, too.
It is also gorgeously written. This is a passage where Goldman describes some of the things Aura thought about as she sat at the beach:
At one end of the beach rose a steep bluff with a large solitary cross on top. Millennia of erosion had opened a triangular window in the formation of enormous boulders jutting into the ocean at the foot of the bluff, the beach’s eponymous window, in which sunsets were framed like detached pieces of sky; she spent much time trying to imagine when and how wind and ocean had penetrated the rock, the instant when light and spray had first broken through, what could that have been like?
The more Goldman tenderly revels in his memories of Aura, the more acutely I felt his grief as the book progressed. The two took many trips together, and Goldman lets the reader in on several inside jokes. He’ll start out describing funny little stories from the past, and sometimes ends in utter despair. I read this passage a couple of times, both because of its beauty and because the memory that triggered it had been so lighthearted at the outset:
Every day a ghostly ruin. Every day the ruin of the day that was supposed to have been. Every second on the clock clicking forward, anything I do or see or think, all of it made of ashes and charred shards, the ruins of the future. The life we were going to live, the child we were going to have, the years we were going to spend together, it was as if that life had already occurred millennia ago, in a lost secret city deep in the jungle, now crumbled into ruins, overgrown, its inhabitants extinguished, never discovered, their story never told by any human being outside it—a lost city with a lost name that only I remember.
Because of the subject matter, Say Her Name is a book that most people probably want to dip into little by little (I’m a masochist and read it in a few sittings). It is oftentimes a painful read–especially towards the last quarter of the book when Goldman’s introspections reach new heights–but it was also a book that stayed with me long after I read the final page.
Say Her Name was released by Grove Press on April 5, 2011. These were some of my favorite passages.