Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name

Disclaimer: The publishers provided this book for review via NetGalley.

It wasn’t until about halfway through Francisco Goldman’s Say Her Name, a novelized account of the years surrounding his wife’s sudden death, that I began to think he had achieved something with his book. Up to that point, I’d been occasionally struck by the almost wrenching sorrow he conveyed with simple descriptions (like when he sees the marks of Aura’s fingers in a tub of face wash) but otherwise uninterested in hearing more of this sorrow. Creating an altar to Aura, hanging Aura’s wedding dress over a mirror in his room, reading Aura’s diaries and fragments of stories, wearing Aura’s old scarf, recoloring all his memories in relation to Aura’s death – Say Her Name is sometimes exhausting to read, even when Goldman captures something essential about the process of mourning.

At the halfway point, though, something changed. My frustration with the depths of Goldman’s mourning, with the almost hagiographic portrayal of his wife Aura, collapsed, oddly enough, when Goldman stepped outside the image of the “properly mourning husband” I had crafted. About a year after Aura’s death Goldman embarks on a couple short-lived relationships with women who are, like Aura, significantly younger than he is. About a page after thinking, “Francisco, please, keep it in your pants, I liked it better when you were just reading Aura’s journals and being sad and writing about Aura’s childhood and her mixed feelings on academia” I thought: I’ve been caught up in this and his mourning and the story of what I want that mourning to look like.

Goldman draws the reader into his mourning, but through the early portions of this novel I also felt outside of that mourning – after all, how can I, someone who’s never experienced a loss as large as Goldman’s, understand what his experience of this loss means? I reacted to his sorrow the same way so many peripheral characters in this novel (novelized memoir?) do; first by wanting it to go away, to be less than it is, to be something manageable; and then, when Goldman moves through the stages, is still mourning Aura but not in the same ways he did for the first year, by wanting him to return to some “purer” expression of his loss.

If that makes sense to anyone but me, then, the best thing about this book is how completely I was exasperated and frustrated by Goldman’s grief. He was about twenty years older than Aura when they met, spent only four years with her (two of those as a married couple), she was just thirty when she died. His loss, then, is not just for Aura and the life they had together, but for everything it was going to be: for Aura’s future as a writer, for the years and aging they didn’t have, for the child they had planned to have but never did. Without ever stating things so bluntly as that, Goldman manages to express those losses in this book, which is itself a part of his mourning, and creates Aura so fully that when I had to read the scene of Aura’s death and the days and months leading up to it near book’s end, I could barely continue reading. The time Goldman devotes to seemingly peripheral details, like the other beaches they might have gone to on their vacation, rather than the beach where Aura died – the structure of waves – the comparative safety of the beach they went to the day Aura broke her neck while bodysurfing – underscore the sorrow of her death, a thing that should not have happened given the statistics, but did anyway.

Say Her Name is classified as fiction, which is one of the things that held me outside of the text for the first half of the book. From what I gather Goldman created some composite characters, but as I read I couldn’t stop wondering what else he had changed or shifted, where the “fiction” comes into a book that’s clearly been written as a memoir. By end this had become a minor concern, though it’s something I continue to wonder about.

Throughout the book Goldman quotes from Aura’s childhood diaries and stories. For much of my read I felt these things detracted from the story Goldman was telling. Goldman tells us that Aura is a skilled writer, but the excerpts he quotes mostly show that she was a twenty-something writer reimagining events from her life as short stories. Not a bad writer, not a great one, simply someone who reads like the age she was when she wrote the stories. By the time I reached the end of Say Her Name, though, I wondered if this wasn’t what Goldman was trying to express with all these writings of Aura’s: what she could have been if she had lived, because as the book progresses the improvements in her writing are evident even to those of us who have only these few glimpses of it.

It took me a while to settle into this book, but once I was in I was in, a little stunned at how Goldman had gotten me to react to his story of Aura’s life and death and his mourning before I even thought I cared about that story. Say Her Name is a book heavy with the weight of all those parts of Aura’s life not yet lived, and it’s a book that should be read.

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