Book Review: Say Her Name
Say Her Name is a book of extremes, of contrasts so sharp they cut you coming and going. In it, Francisco Goldman shares with his readers the greatest passion of his life, which is now forever linked to his greatest loss. He recounts the supremely intense story of how he met, fell in love with, and married his second wife, Aura Estrada, a young, vibrant graduate student at Columbia and City College. But like a magical gothic legend, his tale is interwoven with the darkest of threads—that of Ms. Estrada’s death, the result of severe spinal injuries she sustained while trying to bodysurf off the coast of her native Mexico. (I’m not giving anything away here by telling you this; we know about the tragedy from the very beginning of the book.)
Their love affair was as luminous as her death was devastating, and joy and pain are twinned and knotted throughout the book. Like his wife’s wedding dress, which Goldman and his wife’s friends hang in his Brooklyn apartment as a kind of shrine to her, Ms. Estrada’s presence haunts these pages. If this were fiction, you’d say that naming her character “Aura” would be a little too on the nose—straining believability, like one of those eerie coincidences or tricks of the mind that the author himself notes when he hears her favorite Beatles’ songs being played all over their neighborhood after her death, a kind of radio station emanating from the great beyond. And yet, his reaction to these “messages” is completely credible and human: his desire to believe in their deeper meaning is accompanied by self-mockery for having even contemplated the possibility.
Say Her Name is a book about creation and destruction, and this duality applies to language as well as love—not surprising given that Goldman and Ms. Estrada are/were both talented writers. Goldman’s respect for the almost incantatory power of words is felt in his grief (and in his mother-in-law’s stinging last words) as well as in the way he clings to the written fragments that his wife has left behind (her stories, computer notes, and scribblings).
It’s no accident that the stirring passage from which the book’s title is drawn is a meditation on grief that speaks to the eternal nature of language, to its ability to exist beyond our mortal bodies. “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.”
Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman (Grove Press – 2011)