Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Title: Say Her Name
Author: Francisco Goldman
Publisher: Grove Press, 2011
Genre: Advertised as a novelization, but definitely reads like a memoir.
Source: NetGalley

Say Her Name
by Francisco Goldman is the story of the novelist's life with his wife, Aura, a woman several years younger than him, and her sudden and tragic death body-surfing in Mexico. Blamed for her death by Aura's mother and uncle, Goldman wrote Say Her Name to help him deal with his grief.

As stated above, this was advertised as " a novel chronicling his great love and unspeakable loss, tracking the stages of grief when pure love gives way to bottomless pain" (GoodReads). However, to me it definitely read as a memoir. To me, a novel usually has a definite storyline - it may not always be completely chronological, but it ties neatly together, with every event contributing to the overall story. I usually see a memoir as something a little freer and more scattered, potentially veering into memories that are not necessarily essential to tell the story. While in essence, Goldman is telling the story of his life with Aura and his progression of grief after her death, the at times scattered assembly of memories and artifacts from their life together seemed more like a memoir than a novel. Not having read anything else by Goldman, this may be his style of writing in his novels as well. However, in my opinion, this book shouldn't have been described as a novel.

With that bit of nit-pickiness out of the way, the journey through Goldman and Aura's life together is heart-wrenching and moving. I was amazed at the detail Goldman could remember, the fragments of Aura's life he pieces together. He excavates their entire relationship, asking himself the entire time, did this particular experience lead to her death? If this had happened differently, would she have lived? He leaps back and forth between his memories of their life together and his experiences after her death with transitions that are occasionally disorienting; however, these two parallels of his existence make an interesting counterpoint in which we can compare the married man to the widower. Interspersed throughout the narrative are fragments of Aura's writing. Occasionally these were also disorienting - I am assuming this is because I read the book in an uncorrected electronic version, and that in the final copy the sections of Aura's writing will be set apart in some way by font or spacing instead of directly inserted into the narrative.

Aura herself seems like a beautiful, enchanting person. I found myself relating to her and wishing I could have known her. He describes her quirkiness, her Hello Kitty toaster and her desire to buy a turquoise coffee press even though they already have a black one. He describes the different types of tears he has seen her cry. He describes her propensity to recite poetry, loudly and accurately, whenever she is drunk. Goldman's descriptions of himself before and after her death are a stark, tragic contrast. Before, he is exuberant, embarrassed at his wedding photos because he is grinning like a clown, and after, he is a ghost of his former self, moving through relationships unable to find what he had in Aura, blaming himself even though her death was clearly an accident, "no happy memory that isn't infected."

His writing is gorgeous. At times it is extremely poetic, illustrating his emotions in beautiful images:
But it was as if those few glinting memory shards had sheared her neurons in some way tha thad left her vulnerable to certain stimuli, the way light flickering through trees or flashing behind a barred fence, or even a vividly striped shirt passing on a sidewalk on a sunny day can provoke seizures in certain people.
Aura said, I wonder, a note of sadness in her voice, like somebody pressing down once, gently, on one minor piano key.
Goldman also has moments of humor sprinkled into his narrative that make him seem close and human. Instead of the distant Famous Writer Who Has Published a Book, he is in your living room, describing his lost love with incredible sadness but also a sense of humor, because he was happy when he had her.
Traumatic grief, I read, made you more prone to cancer, heart disease, increased consumption of alcohol (si senor!) sleep disturbances, unhealthy eating, and "suicidal ideation."
The title for the book is given in a passionate plea to the readers and himself -
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.
This is a gorgeous book, occasionally overly detailed, but always beautiful and moving. Goldman takes his readers through the intertwined anatomy of love and grief while introducing us to Aura and illustrating exactly why he loved her.

Warnings for the sensitive reader: Several F-bombs, often used casually instead of the word "sex." A few scandalous scenes.

Readability: At times, transitions and chronology are a little muddled, but the writing is beautiful.
Plot: 3.5
Characters: 4
Writing: 5
Personal response: 3.5 - I was a bit put-off by all the language.
Overall: 4


  1. Hrmm...a memoir that calls itself a novel? Strange. But the book sounds beautiful, and I'm definitely going to take a closer look.

  2. I'm a little confused why he would call it a novel if he used his and his wife's real names, and all the major events really happened... but it sounds really good and tragic, so I think I'll try it sometime when I need a good cry.


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