Grief is a sprawling, messy thing. Easy to share — and yet near-impossible to make comprehensible.
In his new novel-cum-memoir, journalist and novelist Francisco Goldman joins the ranks of writers, from Joan Didion to Calvin Trillin, who have attempted the tricky alchemy of pressing grief over the loss of a spouse into a neatly bound volume. Goldman's much younger wife, the writer Aura Estrada, died in a freak surfing accident while the two were vacationing on the western coast of Mexico in 2007. They had been married just shy of two years.
Estrada was a promising literary talent. Born in Mexico in 1977, she was raised in Mexico City by a single mother. She moved to the United States to pursue her doctorate in Spanish literature at Columbia University and was simultaneously working on an MFA in writing at Hunter College. She had published numerous reviews and short stories in Spanish, and had started publishing in English — her first piece for the Boston Review had been published a month before her death.
Throughout the novel, Goldman's power of description lulls you into forgetting that you're reading a tragedy. Of the west-coast Mexican beaches that Estrada fell in love with as a girl, he writes, "Evening always came as a welcome surprise, cooling the burning sand, filling the sky and air with diluted fruit drink colors, until finally it became too dark to read."
Those beaches become a third character in the book, pulling us inexorably toward Estrada's end. Estrada is not just a writer, or Goldman's wife; she's a forgetful, laughter-filled woman who worries about how her colleagues will view her marriage to an older man and delights in a new quilt or a dinner with friends.
The book cuts back and forth between Goldman rebuilding his day-to-day and Estrada's life before her marriage. When Goldman returns to New York after her death, two of Estrada's girlfriends pick him up at the airport and take him back to their dusty, abandoned apartment. The women begin to construct an altar to Estrada — her hairbrush, a copy of the Boston Review in which her essay had appeared, a turquoise drinking flask. The centerpiece is Estrada's wedding dress, handmade of fine cotton and silk lace. The straps are yellowed with sweat, and the hem dirty from dancing. The everyday of her life haunts him. Goldman dreams of his wife curled around him, blue like a popsicle, of arriving in a bargain basement where her dresses are neatly packaged for sale. There is a sensation, Goldman writes, "that my brain was leaking, spurting dream images into the day."
This is a reminder that we have been handed an adulterated account of the entire marriage. Say Her Name is not a memoir, not even an unfaithful one — it's a novel, a parallel universe built with some of the facts of Estrada's life and death. In an interview with Publisher's Weekly, Goldman explained that in writing the novel he would take lines from Estrada's diary and fictionalize an entire entry around it.
The best novels about marriage acknowledge that there is something hidden, something unknowable within to all outside parties. In writing Say Her Name, Goldman has shared with the reader the sort of ephemeral fantasy that we invent about the people we love. He blurs the line between lover and biographer. Goldman gives us enough of Estrada that I was left wishing she were alive to give her own account.
This is is not necessarily a book to be loved. It's a map of grief and work and missed chances. It is rare to be invited into a marriage, offered a drink and asked to hear of all its messy particulars. "[I]t's as if I inherited," Goldman writes, "but just somewhat, that manner of feeling sometimes attuned to something dreadful out there."
Phoebe Connelly is a writer in Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in Washington City Paper, The Awl, and Bookforum.