March 30, 2011
One of my long-standing favorite novels is Franciso Goldman’s 1992 debut, The Long Night of White Chickens. In dreamy, elegant prose, Goldman tells the story of Flor de Mayo Puac, a Wellesley College graduate who returns to her native Guatemala to run a private orphanage. There she is murdered. The plot pivots on the mystery of her violent death. Even though Goldman spends too much time dwelling on Guatemalan politics, it remains an impressive work.
Nineteen years and three books later, Goldman has written a new novel that takes into account the life of another Latin American woman, Aura Estrada, a promising PhD student at Columbia University. Only Aura isn’t a fictional character, despite the “novel” label given to the book. She’s Goldman’s recently deceased wife. Aura died four years ago from injuries sustained while body surfing in Mexico the summer of 2007. Say Her Name is a “memoir novel” about their four-year relationship, their marriage in the summer of 2005, the tragedy of Aura’s death and Goldman’s paralyzing grief.
From the very beginning of this heart-breaking story, we’re informed of Aura’s death at the age of 30 and the blame cast upon the 50-year-old Goldman (“this is your fault”) by Aura’s protective mother. But we’re not given the full details of the accident just yet. Those come in the end, although the narrative offers hints along the way as the couple’s life together in Brooklyn and Mexico City unfolds. Back and forth in time and place, the narrative wanders flawlessly, with Goldman taking us into scenes of Aura growing up in Mexico with her mother and stepfather and pursuing a scholarly life at a Mexican university and then universities in New York City. We also experience Aura as girlfriend and wife living with Goldman in Brooklyn and then visiting him in dreams and ghost-like illusions after her death.
We come to know a spirited, determined young woman filled with hope and also the talent to become a notable Latin American writer. Her infectious joy and child-like volubility radiate from the narrative, as does her energetic and fun-filled personality. But the narrative always loops back to Goldman’s overwhelming grief, scenes of his emptiness and dread, and a reader’s sadness hovers as we suffer with him knowing what’s to come. When I reached the final pages that would reveal the moments of the tragedy at the beach in Mexico, the month before their second wedding anniversary, a sickening feeling came over me, and I had to walk away from the book for a moment. All that had come before had brought me so close to the author and Aura, I couldn’t bear to live through those horrible last moments of her life, a feeling that testifies to the grip this deeply moving story had on me.
To put in perspective Goldman’s use of fiction and non-fiction, here’s what he said in the book’s press release: “I’ve surrounded Aura and myself with a fictionalized family and friends for numerous reasons, including the duty to protect, to keep secrets, including our own secrets, while providing the space to write a true account of our lives — Aura’s and my own, with and without her.”
Say Her Name surely will stand among the great memoirs in grief literature for its powerful story of love, loss and mourning, next to C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.