Review: Say Her Name, by Francisco Goldman

Truth be told, I finished this book some time ago, but it's taken me awhile just to wade through all of the feelings it brought to the surface for me - I don't know that I've been so affected by a book since Atonement, and I honestly don't know if that says more about Francisco Goldman, about the book, or about myself. As with Ian McEwan's Atonement, the narrator has an overwhelming amount of survivor's guilt, though Goldman's approach is significantly more transparent than McEwan's fictional narrator.

Say Her Name, by Francisco Goldman
Grove Press  |  2011  |  288 pp
I remember reading the New York Times review back in 2011 and feeling so compelled by Goldman's loss - his young wife died tragically only two years into their marriage in what authorities would call a freak accident - that I stopped into the Grand Central Posman Books (now gone) the next day to buy it. I couldn't remember the name of it (a fact which I acknowledge to be incredibly ironic) but I was able to summarize it (no response from the employees) and describe the cover - the guy helping me located the sea-blue hardcover with the shapelessly-draped wedding gown floating beneath the title, and looked at me kind of dubiously as if he either had no idea what I was about, or as if he was judging my choice of book.

Perhaps that's in part because this tremendous story of tragedy doesn't make for a great best-seller, or even a highly-recommended mass market beach read (actually, in the interest of taste, please maybe don't read this at the beach). It feels so much more niche and complex than that - not something the casual reader would or should pick up.

Honestly, I'm not sure I was at a point in my life in 2011 where I could have been prepared for it; now that I'm past 30 and have had my share of loss, I know that I appreciate it more than I could have then.

It's a commitment - truly, I think any memoir or biography or autobiography worth its weight requires more attention than most readers can give, but then I hate to call this novel any of those; it is without question biographical - but the way that Goldman breaks up the tragic tale of his short-lived ardent love and builds it strategically is much more like a fictional novel and, in that aspect, exceeds even McEwan in sparking my emotions. Goldman has even said this is not a memoir - certainly, these events happened, but the telling is him emotionally...not the real him - he cites Faulker to this point: "A novel is a writer's secret self, a dark twin of a man" and so that is how he proceeded with telling his story but also removing himself to a degree and allowing the catharsis to take on a life almost of its own.

By design (I imagine), their story arrives like waves as high tide approaches - you can see them in the distance as they surge and recede back and forth until the reader is completely saturated, drowning in stimuli. The Times reviewer called this oscillation "restless...the pacing of the grief-struck," which is terribly accurate in this case.

Goldman, who does not always present himself (or, shall we say, his fictionalish self) in the best light,
shames himself for his humanity in a way that makes it clear that he is (or, was, at least at the time of writing) still working though his grief. We see the denial, the anger, the bargaining and the depression and it seems, only when he begins to imagine Aura as a spirit in her tree, that he has begun to approach acceptance.

How can one explain death? How can one begin to understand it? And how can we move beyond it? Perhaps we never do or - as Goldman says - perhaps grief is eternal like a person's name - "Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it. Same alive as dead, always."

While I can't recommend this book for most readers, I encourage you to read about Francisco and Aura - you can read about the Aura Estrada prize here, and you can read an excerpt "The Wave" here.


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