Book review: 'Say Her Name' by Francisco Goldman

Special to the Los Angeles Times

Say Her Name

Francisco Goldman

Grove Press: 350 pp., $24

Death has taken a conspicuous place in the recent works of several writers. Joan Didion lost her husband and wrote about it, as did Joyce Carol Oates. Elizabeth McCracken lost a baby; Christopher Buckley his beloved parents, "Mum" and "Pup"; Gail Caldwell her dear friend and fellow writer, Caroline Knapp. All transformed their experiences of these losses into memoirs.

Perhaps this is what we have now instead of accepted cultural death rituals: the task of transforming grief into a book. Typically such publications, like memorial services, do not just share a deep sadness but also celebrate the person as he or she lived. Didion's book, likely to remain a classic of the genre, darts back and forth between her husband's sudden death, the extended time of mourning and recollections of their life together as the author tries painfully to reorient herself without him.

Francisco Goldman's powerful new addition to this category, "Say Her Name," follows a similar zigzag path as the author moves from the Brooklyn home he shared with his wife, to the time before they met, to travels they took to Paris, Las Vegas, Mexico. For reasons that remain murky, Goldman labels his book a "fictionalized memoir" rather than a straight recollection. He keeps his own and his wife's name the same, and has said that the gripping account of her accident, which appears in the book's harrowing later pages, was just as it happened — leaving a reader to wonder uneasily which of the book's details are real and which invented.

Goldman, author of novels including "The Long Night of White Chickens" and a work of journalism, "The Art of Political Murder," was vacationing with his wife, Aura Estrada, on the southern coast of Mexico in 2007, a month shy of their second anniversary, when Aura broke her neck in a freak bodysurfing accident. She died later that night, after a tortuous collective effort to save her. Goldman's tender, angry, remorseful, and, above all, passionate account is of their brief, devoted marriage, the life and work of Aura herself — and his various ways of recovering himself after the loss.

Aura was 30 when she died. The fact of her youth, and of their age difference — Goldman was more than 27 years her senior — necessarily shapes his story: Goldman is mourning not just who Aura was and the love they shared, but also who she might have become, the family they might have made. Goldman imagines the child they hoped for, and the literary success he is certain awaited her. (He was a teacher, she a student, when they met.) At the time of her death, Aura was starting to publish stories and essays, and one of Goldman's devotional acts, after poring through Aura's journals and computer files, is to resurrect and present to us the products of his late wife's imagination.

One can't help wondering whether Goldman's disclaimer about his book's veracity exists in part to assuage any possible offense to Aura's surviving friends — in his grief-addled months he sleeps with one, flirts with another — or more likely her family; especially Aura's devastated mother, Juanita, who considered having him criminally prosecuted for the accident. Certainly Juanita blamed him for endangering "the daughter she'd given away to me to protect in marriage."

For his part, Goldman resents the mother's holding on to Aura's ashes, and though he protests otherwise, the sense of a son-in-law's hostility remains, marring to some extent the poetry and romance of Goldman's story. (When recalling his first meeting with Juanita, who is only a few years older than he, Goldman describes "a maternal Prospero, all powers waned, helplessly spying on a closely huddled, inexplicably enamored Miranda and Caliban.") Late in the book Goldman mentions a female friend of his who said that because of Aura's youth, she had "still belonged more to her mother than to me.… You hadn't had time yet to make Aura all your own."

At this point we realize that "Say Her Name" — Goldman's colorful, detailed wail of grief — is also exactly that: his determined, lyrical effort to claim his beloved Aura, once and for all, as his own.

Brownrigg's novel for children, "Kepler's Dream," will be published next year.

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