Francisco Goldman’s novel Say Her Name seems to be all the rage right now. I randomly came across a recommendation somewhere or other, and then proceeded to find brilliant reviews for the novel everywhere I looked on the internet. It wasn’t too long after I delved in that I figured out what all the fuss was about.
The narrative is reminiscent (to me at least) of that of Carolyn Parkhurst’s The Dogs of Babel. A man loses his wife and, while dealing with the tumultuous pain of his loss, he revisits (and maybe even romanticizes) the relationship they shared. The late wife in both cases is a bit more tortured than we first realize, but is always a compellingly vivacious character.
Goldman pulls us right into the throes of his sorrow as he reveals the tragic fact that his young wife, Aura, died in a drowning accident of some sort in her native country, Mexico. She was a graduate student at Columbia living with her husband in Brooklyn, and a vacation with friends took them down to Mexico. He recounts Aura’s lifestory in fairly chronological form up until her death. Throughout, he intersperses memories of his four years with Aura as well as the aftermath of her demise even though we remain fuzzy on the exact details of his wife’s last hours until the book’s last pages. This little structural detail really serves to keep you constantly feeling for Francisco; it is almost as though recounting Aura’s death is a truly insurmountable task, one that can only be completed once the other facts of their lives have been fully exhausted.
Intelligently written, Say Her Name is a beautiful manifestation of Francisco’s love for Aura as well as a tale of loss. Though the loss of his wife is the central thread of Goldman’s story, his all-encompassing awe for and devotion to Aura is what will most stain reader’s minds. Maybe it’s just because I’m a bit of a romantic and a huge sucker for stories told by the love-struck male who paints the object of his affection in the rosiest of love’s shades. Or maybe it’s because Goldman’s novel stands as one of the greatest acts of love that an individual could ever commit for someone else. Aura is immortalized in Say Her Name; her earliest dark adolescent thoughts, recorded in treasured diaries, the torturous secrets and insecurities shared with her husband, the gorgeous fragments of writing which she fervently dreamed of one day seeing bound in a published book are all threaded into this eulogy of a novel. We are introduced to Aura through Francisco’s narrative eyes, but a whole lot of authentic Aura finds its way into the story too.
Say Her Name has more depth than almost any other novel of love and loss I’ve yet come across. I’d attribute this both to Goldman’s intellectual roots but also to the fact that this story is so very steeped in his very real experience. Francisco documented his love for Aura the way he knew best. Though a novel alone cannot lessen the sorrow of losing one’s wife, writing such a strikingly real portrait of Aura allows her presence to permeate every corner of Goldman’s life. Though this in itself isn’t a major change from the way Francisco experinenced the initial shock of losing Aura, her spiritual presence begins to enhance and even brighten Francisco’s world, rather than fill him with an overwhelming degree of sorrow.
After Aura’s death, Francisco speaks with Ana Eva, a waitress at a restaurant the couple used to frequent. He shares with her a line from “Exequy on his Wife” a poem by Henry King, Bishop of Chichester that reads “ev’ry Howre a step towards thee.” For Francisco, this excerpt encompasses the whole state of emotions through which he is dealing. He goes on to explain that “this is why we need beauty, to illuminate even what has most broken us… [not] to help us transcend or transform it into something else, but first and foremost to help us see it.” This rationalization of beauty helps explain the importance of this particular piece of poetry to Francisco, but also is essential in gaining an understanding of why he wrote Say Her Name.
The novel is at times raw and painful, at others romanticized and lovely. But it is always undeniably real and authentic. Say Her Name is a harrowingly true story that touches at the heartstrings, for its profundity of love and depth of sadness are unquestionably, gut-wrenchingly sincere.