‘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 in deeply.’
Her name was Aura Estrada. On the book’s first page – the very first line – Francisco Goldman informs the reader of the following: “Aura died on July 25, 2007.” On that same page we are apprised of several other crucial facts: Francisco and Aura were about to celebrate their second anniversary as husband and wife. Aura’s mother and uncle hold Francisco responsible for the tragedy that took her life.
At the time of her death, Aura Estrada was thirty years old.
Those are the bare facts. Around them, Goldman weaves a narrative that moves back and forth in time and is filled with anecdote and vivid evocation of time and place. Power gradually accumulates.There were times when I simply had to put the book down. I felt suffocated by the weight of this man’s pain. In my reading life, I have rarely felt a sense of loss so deep, deeper than the ocean that took Goldman’s wife from him – ‘mi Aura,’ as he calls her, the cry echoing, still echoing after I’ve finished Say Her Name.
In the immediate aftermath of this terrible event, Goldman cast about desperately for even the smallest source of consolation. He got it from a tailor, a carpenter, and a security guard, respectively. The tailor told him that Aura would not have wanted to see him “…dragging my sadness around in a heavy, black wool suit.” He recommended instead, charcoal gray.
Chucho, a security guard at the apartment building where Francisco and Aura lived, came up to him and said, “Resignación, señor. Resignación.”
A carpenter had been engaged to build some bookshelves for their apartment. He arrived with them twelve days after Aura’s death. He did not know what had happened. When told, he unfolded a newspaper he had with him and showed Francisco a story about a woman, mother of two young children, who’d been hit by a car and killed: “These things can happen to anybody, Francisco, and they happen every day.”
Three wise men: the tailor, the carpenter, and the security guard. In those first days and weeks after Aura’s death, nobody spoke sounder words to me.
Goldman sums up the wisdom imparted by these three:
Charcoal gray instead of black.
Resignación, señor, resignación.
These things happen everyday.
He concludes by observing with bitter irony that “I did, at least, heed the tailor.”
Goldman’s writing is at times richly descriptive, but more often it is understated to the point of terseness. In addition to their dwelling place in Mexico City, Aura and Francisco had an apartment in Brooklyn. Here, Francisco describes Aura’s preparations for the trip to Mexico. It would be her last, though neither of them knew it then:
Aura put her quilt away in the closet and came back into the bedroom and finished packing for her death, three weeks and one day away.
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 ruins of the future.
I was going to begin this review by stating that this novel is one long howl of anguish. But really it is much more than that. It is rich with incident, varied and colorful. And it is filled with the minutest observations of Aura Estrada. Aura was a candidate for a PhD in literature at Columbia University. In addition, she was an aspiring writer. Stories were already pouring out of her. She wrote them down as fast as she could. Some of the fragments appear in this book. Francisco Goldman takes his role as his late wife’s literary executor with the utmost seriousness.
In one of the book’s lighter moments, Francisco takes Aura to Katz’s Deli for her first ever pastrami sandwich. She is so enamored of this concoction that she wolfs the whole thing down in record time. (Those are large sandwiches.) The inevitable then happened when, barely out of the restaurant, she began moaning and clutching her stomach. She spent the rest of the afternoon in bed in the Brooklyn apartment, drinking Alka Seltzer and being nursed by Francisco. (This happened early in their relationship; Francisco was delighted when Aura said she wanted – needed! – to go home, by which she seemed to mean, to his apartment. ‘To my place?’ he’d queried, to be sure. She had nodded yes. )
Such quotidian scenarios appear intermittently, providing a few moments of lightness. But there is no escaping the sense of doom that pervades this narrative. And as with so many incidents from Francisco’s brief time with Aura – a time which he had every confidence would stretch far into the future – this one comes back to haunt him:
Now, whenever I pass near Katz’s Deli, I stop to stare in a mute muddle at that sidewalk, at the long blackish snake of the curb, the empty air above. Sometimes I go and stand where it happened and whisper, You mean, to my place? 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.
[The fact that Say Her Name has been published as a novel is somewhat confusing, especially since the author has not changed the names of any of the dramatis personae. I'm guessing that Goldman felt a need for the greater latitude that fiction would allow him in telling this story.]
Among the blurbs on the back of the hardback edition book is this, from Jhumpa Lahiri:
Francisco Goldman tells us that in ‘descending into memory like Orpheus’ he hopes he might ‘bring Aura out alive for a moment.’ But in the act of writing, Goldman transcends the constraints of myth and achieves nothing short of the impossible. Page by page, by the breath of his own words, Say Her Name restores Aura from shade to flesh, and returns her, unforgettably and permanently, to our world.
These pictures were taken at the wedding of Aura Estrada and Francisco Goldman. They were married in August of 2005 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
Francisco Goldman and several of Aura’s friends and admirers have established The Aura Estrada Prize, to encourage young women embarking on writing careers in the Spanish language.
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 and 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.