Say Her Name

It is possible to glide past the heart and core of Francisco Goldman's Say Her Name without realizing you have read it, in a sentence of twelve words on page 10: "I still regularly imagine that Aura is beside me on the sidewalk." Everything else on these beautiful, raw, haunting 350 pages—the novelist and journalist's tribute to the young wife whose death in a freak accident at a Mexican beach nearly destroyed him, too—could be considered a gloss on that one line. He wills her to live again because feeling her loss is intolerable. In one thing, then, he is lucky: a writer of this great a talent possesses the power to resurrect the dead. Almost. And it is that "almost," the sense of longing for complete reanimation, once we have met the literary Aura Estrada in all her uniqueness, that tints this book with unutterable sadness.

 

The author calls it a novel, rather than a biographical memoir, since facts alone could not yield the depth of emotional shading created instead with physical detail that is necessarily imagined (he did not know Aura as a teenager, though she is seen here as one) as well as undoubtedly true. It is also a working diagram of love, all its wiring and bolts. Drawn from two highly specific individuals, it becomes useful in understanding a construction that is universal.

 

No one else sees you with the full, all-seeing gaze of the one who truly adores you. Goldman's profound love for the young graduate student in literature he meets when he is not exactly looking turns the brightest light on her, so that we too see her in almost painful richness. The writer remembers—everything—and displays it like a sacrificial offering to angry gods: her funny walk, the musings of her girlhood diary, bits of the fiction she seemed born to write, her playful teasing, the self-doubt that seemed strangely necessary to her creative impulse. It is a particular way of looking, with the eyes of love, every aspect amplified, important, and meaningful, because beloved.

 

By dying young—only thirty, married just shy of two years, coming into her full powers as a writer and her desire to be a mother—Aura gave us an unwitting gift. It is a breathtaking present, yet one that both recipient (reader) and creator (husband and author) would gladly give back: the stunning biography that most likely would never have been written but for her untimely death.

 

Losing a spouse is like contracting an incurable illness. Many medicines will be essayed (and Goldman tries most, from overdrinking to intemperate sex) even though all must fail: the only real cure is the return of the lost. Writing a book must present itself as the next best remedy, given the evidence of how many writers have had recourse to its purgative powers: Joan Didion, Joyce Carol Oates, Calvin Trillin, and Rush drummer Neil Peart (who lost both wife and daughter in the same year) all wrote memorable books about losing their mates. These are essential volumes in the library of grief and remembrance; with Say Her Name, the inimitable powers of poetic fiction are added to the memorial shelf.

 

All new love, I suspect, is made strong by imagined loss. It is integral to those fraught first days: What would I do without you? In the case of Aura and Francisco, the difference in their ages (some two decades) caused Aura to wonder what she would do in her old age without her husband: "She would occasionally say, 'Why couldn't you be ten years younger? Then everything would be so perfect!'" The irony here needs no comment. It is painful enough as it is.

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 ruin of the future.

One central passage in the great fiction that is falling in love, what comes after those first lines full of jittery anticipation of loss, is the giddy sharing of life stories. There is something wholly imperative about feeding yourself, bit by verbal bit, into the mouth of another: you want him to consume it all, and love its taste—the flavor of you. So it is that Goldman knows so much about his lovely young wife; for the rest, he immersed himself, after her death, in her diaries and the work stored on her computer. Then all he had to do was put it in the kiln of his novelist's imagination and fire it with his despair. What emerges is permanently enamaled in bright colors:

Aura . . . was just raising the key to the lock when the old timber of the big zaguán door shook in its frame as if from an earthquake aftershock, followed by a burst of metallic fidgeting within the lock, which set the door handle quivering. She waited a moment, put the key in, turned it, pushed the heavy door open, and found Héctor, her father, on the other side, in the stone-paved vestibule, looking flustered, his mussed graying hair dangling over his forehead.

Writing like this, immediate, hopeful, vibrant, can only be considered an act of creative restoration. It is also a prayer to prevent another loss: forgetting. "I'm terrified of losing you in me," Goldman writes. Making his beloved physically present, right up to the edge of breath, is a talisman against this new bereavement. It would be too much to bear, first her, then the memories so real they can practically be touched. Then it would be our loss, too.

July 23: Jessica Mitford died on this day in 1996.

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