Francisco Goldman's fourth novel is based on a real tragedy in which his wife, Aura Estrada, broke her neck while body-surfing along the Mexican coast, and died. She had recently turned 30. They had known each other for four years and would have celebrated their second wedding anniversary if she had lived another month.
Frank is the central character, describing, dissecting, celebrating and mourning Aura's life. He paints a flesh-and-blood portrait of a warm-hearted, playful, aspiring young Mexican writer, intimately trawling through his memories, her diaries (kept since childhood) and the unfinished fiction that she left in her computer hard-drive. She had hoped to create an "X-ray" of her childhood through her storytelling. He appears to want to do this for her, in part, in this novel.
The story is all the more dramatic, and tragic, because it is based on facts. Frank's emotional freight – love, happiness, bewilderment, guilt, grief – sounds like Goldman's. Yet the New York author and journalist holds us back from thinking in such clearly divided terms. He wrote in novel form because of a deep suspicion towards the claims of veracity that memoirs boast. All memory turns into a kind of fiction when recounted thus. Say Her Name certainly blurs the clean lines drawn around fiction, biography and memoir. While it is impossible to regard the story as straightforward fiction, it is an immensely powerful and thoroughly accomplished piece of work.
Goldman met Aura at the age of 47. By then, he had stopped believing in love, having been serially disappointed. Their first meeting was at a book presentation in New York, and though their romance began months later, her presence had aleady lodged itself in his head. Their relationship is incandescently evoked. She is returned to life in its retelling - her charm, her ardour, her irritations and endearments, and the unsolved mysteries of the soul that a young wife takes to her untimely grave.
Alongside love there is the flood of grief: Goldman pays obsessive attention to even the smallest details surrounding her death, from the last books she read to the kind of wave that engulfed her in Mazunte, Oaxaca. While this portrait is saturated in the subjectivity of his love, his grief is much more clinically depicted, as if he is observing his self-destruction. He spends his days drunk, distraught, or sleeping with women who knew Aura.
The novel format might also have been chosen to afford Goldman greater creative freedom. After Aura died, he was blamed for the death by her mother, Juanita, who launched a legal case against him. Goldman had run into the sea behind Aura and surfed a wave just before her fatal jump, when she attempted to follow his act of bravado. The guilty argument is aired that, without his gesture, she would be alive today.
He ponders Juanita's accusation fully, but finally refutes it with reason, (the shoreline was a safe one which had never before yielded a fatality), philosophical arguments on free will, and expressions of his deepest love and regret. A quiet rage towards Juanita courses just below the surface of his narrative. Yet despite this tension (or perhaps because of it) he does not skate over the close and complex mother-daughter relationship. Juanita and Goldman appear at times to regard each other as rivals for Aura's heart.
At moments in Say Her Name, there are echoes of Joan Didion's stunned disbelief, in The Year of Magical Thinking, at losing a spouse so abruptly. The emotional aftershocks resound in Goldman's prose, and leave him wobbling on existentially slippery ground. It is not just Aura he has lost but his former identity as a married man, deeply content, utterly in love, convinced of his future with Aura and their as-yet unborn family.
He reads deeply in and around death, loss, bereavement, in order to heal, but finds himself resistant. In Freud's essay "Mourning and Melancholia", he reads that mourning's function "was to detach the survivor's memories and hopes from the dead. You're supposed to accept that and work at it. Freud believed the process should take between one and two years. But I didn't want to detach or accept, I did not want to, why did I have to want to be 'cured'?"