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Say Her Name

by Francisco Goldman

Grove Press | 2011 | 350 pp.

May Her Memory Be a Blessing

Reviewed by Janet Garber

goldman's wedding

Is it every writer’s dream – I know it’s mine – to hover overhead as someone near and dear sifts through our bottom drawer and rescues our hastily scribbled poems, our tattered diaries, and a half-baked manuscript or two, posthumous fame being better than no fame.


Francisco Goldman, in Say Her Name, mounts a towering memorial to the life and works of his young wife whose promising academic and writing career was cut short when she lost her life in a freak accident at age 30. Not only does he resurrect Aura (fitting name!) in all her quirky reality, he quotes here and there from her papers and works in progress. And not content with simple retelling her life story or with pious eulogies, he painfully and obsessively reconstructs every aspect of her short life, flitting back and forth in time and place from her childhood terrors and delights growing up in Mexico, to her student days as a graduate PhD candidate at Columbia, her relationships with her mother and her past loves, and from her days as a foreign student to their coup de foudre courtship and marriage.


The effect is that of a lovingly painted collage of a young, high-strung Latina, with a tremendous life force trying to figure out her place in life, how she can separate her own desires from those of her mother’s, and daring to fall in love with a man more her mother’s age than her own.  Absent minded, Aura constantly loses her books, scarves, mittens and darts all over on subways and on Brooklyn streets to reclaim them, while the plot similarly skips here and there, looking for meaning in remembered scenes from her life.  The design of the book may seem at times scattered, but there is a logic at work – to give immortality on the page to this lovely young woman, much as the Greek poets did for their fallen heroes, and immortality, too, to their tragic story of love lost.


“Sometimes it’s like juggling a hundred thousand crystal balls in the air all at once, trying to keep all these memories going.  Every time one falls to the floor and shatters into dust, another crevice cracks open inside me, through which another chunk of who we were disappears forever.” (p. 297)


When Francisco and Aura meet, they’re drawn to each other by a shared love of books and writing, a common Hispanic heritage (his mother is from Guatemala, his father Russian Jewish, and she is from Mexico) and what seems to be a powerful magnetic attraction.  She’s 22; he’s 47. There’s a world of difference in their life experiences, yet he feels he’s found the love of his life and he appears to do everything in his power to cherish and protect her.


There are no scenes of quarrels between them or even minor disenchantments – the closest they come to a power struggle is when she wants to take their expensive handmade quilt with them on vacation to Mexico and he doesn’t.  Aura emerges from these pages as a vibrant presence, attracting friends as a bright light draws a winged entourage; a bit flighty, sometimes frightened, but always delightful.  Francisco describes himself as a perennial ninote (man-child), eager to frolic, pick up and travel, go out drinking with his young wife, as mindless as she of living within their means, yet somehow providing Aura the protection and security she craved as a child who was abandoned by her father.


Because the timeline is here, there, and everywhere, we follow Francisco’s stream of consciousness, learning all at once about their past separately, together, and his solitary present.  We are strung along somewhat past our breaking point by the mystery of how exactly she met her death and why her relatives blame Francisco.  Was he somehow complicit in her death?  That thought keeps us reading until the very last word.


Francisco is so self-effacing and modest a narrator, focusing our attention exclusively on Aura, while casting himself as the breathless ardent pursuer of this wisp of a girl, hung up on her every gesture, fixated on every fold of her clothing, anxious to peer into her brain and restore to us her very soul.  It comes as a minor shock to learn he is an acclaimed novelist and investigative journalist, an academic and winner of literary prizes. Most memoirs of survivors seem to dwell on their learning to cope following a great loss, their passing through the accepted stages of grief, and their reentry into life.  Here the survivor steps back to relinquish the stage to the fallen idol. Francisco recounts the few short years he spent with Aura so that we can thankfully  have the chance to know her (and love her) a little bit too.


"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.  Aura Estrada" (p. 274).

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