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Review: Joy shines through in Francisco Goldman's heartbreaking novel 'Say Her Name'

Say Her Name is a heartbreaking book — and that's one of the best reasons to read it. Novelist and journalist Francisco Goldman (The Divine Husband, The Art of Political Murder) fell in love with Aura Estrada, a charming, gifted graduate student at Columbia University, in 2003. He was American, she was Mexican; he was 47, she was 25; he was an established author, she was just beginning a career as a fiction writer and scholar. They married in 2005. Just a few weeks before their second anniversary, during a vacation on Mexico's Pacific coast, Aura broke her neck while bodysurfing. She died the next day.

I'm not spoiling the plot of Goldman's book here; its first sentence reads "Aura died on July 25, 2007." Say Her Name moves forward and backward from that shattering event, painting a beguiling, many-layered portrait of a happy marriage between two sometimes unhappy people, and a gut-wrenching account of being its sole survivor.

Although Goldman's marriage to Aura was real, he chose to write Say Her Name as a novel, not a memoir. In the publicity material for the book, he says, "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."

Wondering what is fiction and what is fact might preoccupy you while reading the novel, especially as Francisco's and Aura's pasts — or at least the pasts of the characters bearing those names — are revealed. But Goldman's powerful writing and skillfully crafted plot will sweep most such worries before them.

Although the book opens with a fraught and fragmented account of Aura's death, it moves away from that event almost immediately — a reflection of the first-person narrator's numbing grief in its aftermath. He won't return to it explicitly for almost 300 pages, by which point his own survivor's guilt and the questions of Aura's family will have built an aching suspense about exactly what happened on that remote beach.

But in the beginning, he withdraws into the world the two built for themselves, cocooning himself in their apartment. He hangs her wedding dress on an immense mirror in their bedroom, with an altar at its foot, built by two of her friends, which holds photos, books, souvenirs and "her favorite (and only) pair of Marc Jacobs shoes." He doles out tiny dollops of the tea tree-mint shampoo she left behind, to envelop himself in her scent. He's overwhelmed by her memory as he walks through their Brooklyn neighborhood, past her favorite yoga studio, fish store, brunch place — "a silent chanting of the stations."

That ungovernable flood of memories may be familiar to many people who have lost a loved one suddenly — the irrational feeling that, if you love and remember someone strongly enough, you can will her back from death. "Descending into memory like Orpheus to bring Aura out alive for a moment, that's the desperate purpose of all these futile little rites and reenactments," Goldman writes.

It can't be done, of course, but he does the next best thing: bringing her to life for us on the page. At first, all he can think of are the best things — her dazzling gap-toothed grin, her peculiar New York-accented English (the result of learning the language by watching Seinfeld reruns in Mexico City), her exuberant sense of humor, her intellectual prowess — and how deliriously happy she made him.

But to create Aura fully, he must go beyond their paradise for two, to her history before she met him. That story is dominated by Juanita, Aura's formidable mother, who has always been fiercely protective of her only child — and that's not necessarily a good thing. As one of Aura's best friends tells him, "Juanita's power over Aura is like something in a myth. . . . It's like she can throw thunderbolts from Mexico."

Moving back and forth in time, into Aura's and his own past before their marriage, then into the bleak days that follow its end, Goldman does what all who lose a loved one try to do: build a narrative that makes sense, that will help him go on. It's no easy task, especially given that Aura's death was so senseless. Her last words to her mother: Fue una tonteria, Mamí, it was stupidity.

But Goldman is a gifted storyteller — and so was his wife. The love of story is one of the strongest bonds between them, a major theme of their life together. His mourning takes him into not just his stories but hers — the manuscripts, notes, computer files and even childhood diaries she leaves behind (which may or may not be fictional).

Although the book moves toward an excruciatingly full description of Aura's death, it doesn't end there. Goldman's final storyteller's flourish is also a salute to his beloved wife's enchantment with story — as he has made her his own fictional character, he makes himself into hers. And the story, full of joy and sorrow, lives on.

Colette Bancroft can be reached at cbancroft@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8435.

Say Her Name

By Francisco Goldman

Grove

Atlantic, $24, 350 pages

Review: Joy shines through in Francisco Goldman's heartbreaking novel 'Say Her Name' 04/23/11 [Last modified: Saturday, April 23, 2011 5:30am]

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