Saturday 16 December 2017

Review: Memoir: Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman

Grove Press, £12.99

Magic and loss: Aura Estrada and Francisco Goldman on their wedding day in Mexico in 2005. She died two years later
Magic and loss: Aura Estrada and Francisco Goldman on their wedding day in Mexico in 2005. She died two years later

When Francisco Goldman first met Aura Estrada, she was 25 and on a Fulbright scholarship in his home town of New York. Originally from Mexico, she was studying for her doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese, and had ambitions to be a writer.

He was nearly twice her age, a well-established and respected author and regular contributor to The New Yorker. He was instantly captivated by her beauty, her intelligence, her accent -- in fact, everything about her, from her way of skipping down the street to her habit of readily bursting into tears when something upset her. After a six-week courtship, she moved into his Brooklyn apartment, leaving her grotty student accommodation behind, and their intense love story began.

Goldman writes of their early days together in the apartment: "I was entranced by almost everything she did and could hardly ever take my eyes off her. Really, I was just waiting for her to put the computer away and tumble into my arms under the covers."

In 2005, they married. Goldman remembers how embarrassed he was by how happy he looked in their wedding photos, but he just couldn't keep that "goofy grin" off his face.

Their marriage was filled with humour. In the mornings she would turn to him in bed and say, "Oh my love, how ugly you are. Why did I marry you?" and he would agree before they dissolved into giggles.

Two years later, at the age of 30, Aura was dead. On the morning of her death, she had told Goldman about a novel she was working on and how good it was, which was out of character for her, for she was normally so modest about her own writing. He realised she was happy.

Later that day, as she, her cousin Fabis and Goldman body-boarded in the rough waves off the Mexican beach where they were holidaying, Aura tried to catch a wave, saying, "This one's mine!" The wave took her body, lashed it down against the sand and broke her vertebrae, which in turn severed her spinal cord and the nerves that controlled her breathing. The following 24 hours were a prolonged agony of desperately trying to save Aura's life, but it was all in vain. Goldman said his sobs must have been heard throughout the hospital.

Aura's last words were: "I don't want to die. There's so much I want to do."

Goldman was "out of his mind" for a long time afterwards, he told me when we met in Dublin last week, the chain on which he keeps Aura's wedding ring just peeking above the collar of his brightly checked shirt. But he is adamant that this book is about love, not grief. And it's true, there is a sense of divine adoration in his description of Aura, and an enormous sense of injustice and sadness is invoked in the reader. Goldman felt, in describing the intensity of his love for this charming, complex, intelligent and quirky woman, he could somehow reimagine her back to life.

In the immediate aftermath of her death he was mad with grief. His attempts to bring her back to life were all-consuming. He sparingly used tiny amounts of her minty shampoo, which was in her bag the day she died, and sent her emails that she would never read. He set up a sort of shrine in their apartment, hanging her wedding dress above the mirror in their room, a limp shroud that he believed she would somehow one day reinhabit.

'At one point I went by myself to see Winter's Tale and of course Queen Hermione dies and gets turned into a statue and at the end she comes alive," he told me. "I was bathed in tears when I saw that and obsessed with the idea that I could make this happen to Aura's dress. If I could just come up with the right words I would come back to the apartment and she would be there, like Queen Hermione at the end of Winter's Tale.

"I don't think I've ever realised she's not coming back. I only took the dress down, finally, in February. It was time, it was almost four years."

There is an added layer to the grief that seeps through his book -- that of Aura's mother, who blamed Goldman for her daughter's death (even keeping Aura's ashes from him).

"This would be a very different book if Aura's mother and the narrator grieved together and shared the grief. Obviously something different happened and made what was going to be a bad experience for me even worse. I can't imagine a greater loss -- single mother, only daughter, a mother who was overly possessive and lived through her in many ways . . . I can't imagine a greater loss and I forgive her everything because of that."

Goldman wrote the book as a kind of memorial to his wife, both as a kind of eulogy to her as well as a much more functional aide memoire because he was terrified he would forget the personal details that made up their short time together. "The thing you most fear is forgetting and you're extremely indignant that the world will forget too. I thought at least it would be there for me and I'd be able to remember. I was trying to leave a record."

The book has struck a chord with so many readers. It was published in America in April, garnering rave reviews from critics and is fast on its way to becoming a bestseller.

He says he's a different writer now, a different person. "The last four years have been nothing but meditating on Aura, thinking about loss . . . It's probably not a good thing but it's all I can do. I'm a much more internal writer now. My next book is going to pick up right where I am now -- how do you start your life again?"

And how do you?

"I don't know. It's not easy. I'm curious. I'm not necessarily that optimistic. I've lost a lot."

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