Francisco Goldman turns to words to ease grief of wife's death

Book review: "Say Her Name," by Francisco Goldman. Grove Press, $24.

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"Say Her Name" is an earthy, sexy book about the romance between the 50ish Francisco Goldman and Aura Estrada, his junior by 20 years. Aura is dead. Their love lives on. Both were writers; Goldman very much still is.

In 2007, the couple was on vacation near Mazunte, a Mexican beach not known for dangerous waves. In a freak body surfing accident, Aura broke her neck and died. Mr. Goldman was there when it happened.

Aura's mother, Juanita, and uncle, Leopoldo, blame him for her death; the situation sent the writer into a deep depression only writing could cure -- not only his, which took a while to rekindle, but also her unfinished work.

The book shifts between New York City, Mexico City and Europe, alternating perspective and jumping from one time to another in non-chronological fashion. It often is in Spanish, Aura's native tongue and a Goldman comfort zone. Its logic is more dreamlike than linear:

"Every day a ghostly ruin," Mr. Goldman writes in New York, where Aura was pursuing a master's degree in fine arts at Columbia University. "Every day the ruin of the day that was supposed to have been. Every second on the clock ticking forward, anything I do or see or think, all of it made of ashes and charred shards, the ruins of the future."

"Say Her Name" resonates with sense of place and grasp of character. Mexico City sounds fascinating and mystical and fecund, New York vibrant and quirky; both were home to the couple. The writer describes Aura so vividly it is as though she regains life as a free spirit of remarkable imagination. Take the robot shoes:

"Aura had a bit of a thing for robots. She explained that each shoe would have sensors programmed to respond to its owner's voice and that the shoes would walk toward that voice when called, in a room or apartment, or inside a house within a certain range."

While this is essentially a memoir, Mr. Goldman structures it as though it were fiction, interweaving unfinished writing by Aura with his own, pre-Aura history in an attempt to come to terms with his loss. After her death, he drinks, then works out to get over the hangovers. He knows the very shape of grief:

"Inside me, lodged between spine and sternum, I felt a hard hollow rectangle filled with tepid blank air. An empty rectangle with sides of slate or lead, that's how I visualized it, holding dead air, like the unstirred air inside an elevator shaft in a long-abandoned building."

Slowly, he heals, keeping Aura current by bringing closure to her writings. The book ends with his visit to La Ferte, a psychiatric clinic near Paris that was a model for a site in Aura's unfinished novel.

At La Ferte, psychotics, schizophrenics and melancholics are treated as if they were normal, on the premise that giving people without mental anchor points to settle into can put them together enough to function.

It's a provocative idea -- and a kind of mirror of the grieving process Mr. Goldman must undergo to reconstitute himself as a man alive, albeit a man of deep loss.

(His previous books include "The Art of Political Murder" and "The Long Night of White Chickens.")

Mr. Goldman's love for Aura was a singular one, surprising to both of them. Nature played a particularly cruel trick on the couple, but this book proves there's a way to fight back.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer based in Cleveland.


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