Say Her Name

Say Her Name

3.7 20
by Francisco Goldman

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In 2005, celebrated novelist Francisco Goldman married a beautiful young writer named Aura Estrada in a romantic Mexican hacienda. The month before their second anniversary, during a long-awaited holiday, Aura broke her neck while body surfing. Francisco, blamed for Aura’s death by her family and blaming himself, wanted to die, too. Instead, he wrote Say


In 2005, celebrated novelist Francisco Goldman married a beautiful young writer named Aura Estrada in a romantic Mexican hacienda. The month before their second anniversary, during a long-awaited holiday, Aura broke her neck while body surfing. Francisco, blamed for Aura’s death by her family and blaming himself, wanted to die, too. Instead, he wrote Say Her Name, a novel chronicling his great love and unspeakable loss, tracking the stages of grief when pure love gives way to bottomless pain.

Suddenly a widower, Goldman collects everything he can about his wife, hungry to keep Aura alive with every memory. From her childhood and university days in Mexico City with her fiercely devoted mother to her studies at Columbia University, through their newlywed years in New York City and travels to Mexico and Europe—and always through the prism of her gifted writings—Goldman seeks her essence and grieves her loss. Humor leavens the pain as he lives through the madness of grief and creates a living portrait of a love as joyous as it is deep and profound.

Say Her Name is a love story, a bold inquiry into destiny and accountability, and a tribute to Aura, who she was and who she would've been.

Editorial Reviews

Robin Romm
…passionate and moving…[a] beautifully written account of Goldman's short marriage to Estrada…while Goldman's gifts as a reporter are on full display…the truth that emerges in this book has less to do with the mystery of her death—which, at its core, is the mystery of all tragic deaths—than with the miracle of the astonishing, spirited, deeply original young woman Goldman so adored. "I always wished that I could know what it was like to be Aura," he writes. Goldman revives her through the only power left to him. So remarkable is this resurrection that at times I felt the book itself had a pulse.
—The New York Times
Roxana Robinson
Goldman's long cry of pain seems more like memoir than novel. The use of real names, the apparent cleaving to historical facts, the relentless attentiveness to detail and feeling—all suggest that tenebrous realm we've come to know through the eloquence of Joan Didion and Joyce Carol Oates. Regardless of form, Goldman shares their dark territory. As to what a writer should write about his private life, the answer is that writers have no private lives: We write what we know. Goldman here bears witness to his anguish, which is mighty.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Goldman's (The Divine Husband) fifth book is a highly personal account of the author's life in the aftermath of his young wife's drowning. Goldman moves in time from meeting Aura in New York and her harrowing death on Mexico's Pacific Coast to the painful and solitary two years that followed in Brooklyn, marked in part by his mother-in-law's claim that he was responsible for Aura's death. His struggles to exonerate himself from his own conscience, and from his mother-in-law's legal threats, is electric and poignant, encapsulated in painful such moments as the author's discovery of "the indentations of Aura's scooping fingers like fossils" in the surface of her face scrub soon after her death. Goldman also includes fragments of Aura's fiction and her diary: "Played Atari like crazy, rearranged my Barbie house" recall her youth in Mexico City, and "We're on a plane, we've spent most of the day traveling, Paco asleep on my shoulder" illuminate the private moments of the couple's life. Goldman calls this book a novel and employs some novelistic techniques (composite characters, for instance), but the foundation is in truth: messy, ugly, and wildly complicated truth. (Apr.)
From the Publisher
"Out of crushing loss and despair, Goldman has forged a radiant and transcendent masterpiece." —Booklist Starred Review
Library Journal
With total candor, Goldman (The Divine Husband) describes his life with his wife, Aura Estrada, who died tragically in 2007. This is only a novel in that he changed names to protect some specific identities; otherwise the story is true. This is an authentic work of the heart and soul. He and Aura had a short married life, but one can tell they were happy. They were both gifted writers. He was significantly older; her mother was controlling, and her father absent. Aura was a bright light of ineffable humanity. Goldman describes Aura and his life with her in a gradual way that circles backward and forward in time from the present. He fills in the story bit by bit; the actual description of the accident coming last. VERDICT The feeling, the memorial incarnation that this book creates, is monumental. Essential for all libraries. This book about tragic death is a gift for the living.—Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos P.L., CA
Kirkus Reviews

A nonfiction novel of love and loss...and perhaps even a little redemption.

In the Author's Note, Goldman makes clear that much of this novel is based on the facts of his life. The main characters are named Francisco Goldman and Aura Estrada, a married couple. Goldman (in real life) lost his 30-year-old wife Aura in a freak accident on a beach in Mexico, as does the "Goldman" of the narrative. Both Goldmans are novelists; both Auras are writers of fiction. Goldman (the author) weaves into his story excerpts from journals and short stories penned by his late wife. While all this logistical complexity could conceivably be confusing, at some level it doesn't matter what's "truth" and what's "fiction," for the story is inherently moving and tragic, and it focuses on loss and lament—universal themes whether they derive from memoir or from an author's imagination. The novel moves back and forth chronologically, starting at Aura's death and providing generous flashbacks into both Aura and Goldman's life. When they met, he was an accomplished journalist and a gifted novelist in his mid-40s, and she a talented graduate student from Mexico who'd come to Columbia to earn her doctorate in comparative literature. Along the way she decides she would like to study creative writing, so she co-enrolls in an MFA program at Hunter College. Aura is sprightly, witty and free-spirited, while Goldman is an extremely creative but self-admittedly overgrown adolescent. Their love is deep, and Goldman feels inconsolable at her loss. Shortly after Aura's death, her domineering mother Juanita begins a campaign against Goldman, suggesting that he was in some way responsible for her death and threatening to bring a lawsuit against him.With pathologically maternal petulance, she refuses to let Goldman have some of Aura's ashes for him to take back to their New York apartment. Toward the end of the novel, he begins to accommodate himself to Aura's loss and to a limited extent to Juanita's fractiousness.

Appropriately, in this novel of death and dying, Goldman writes gorgeous, heartbreaking prose.

Product Details

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Say Her Name

By Francisco Goldman

Grove Press

Copyright © 2011 Francisco Goldman
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1981-0

Chapter One

Aura died on July 25, 2007. I went back to Mexico for the first anniversary because I wanted to be where it had happened, at that beach on the Pacific coast. Now, for the second time in a year, I'd come home again to Brooklyn without her.

Three months before she died, April 24, Aura had turned thirty. We'd been married twenty-six days shy of two years.

Aura's mother and uncle accused me of being responsible for her death. It's not as if I consider myself not guilty. If I were Juanita, I know I would have wanted to put me in prison, too. Though not for the reasons she and her brother gave.

From now on, if you have anything to say to me, put it in writing—that's what Leopoldo, Aura's uncle, said on the telephone when he told me that he was acting as Aura's mother's attorney in the case against me. We haven't spoken since.


Aura and me

Aura and her mother

Her mother and me

A love-hate triangle, or, I don't know

Mi amor, is this really happening?

Où sont les axolotls?

Whenever Aura took leave of her mother, whether at the Mexico City airport or if she was just leaving her mother's apartment at night, or even when they were parting after a meal in a restaurant, her mother would lift her hand to make the sign of the cross over her and whisper a little prayer asking the Virgin of Guadalupe to protect her daughter.

Axolotls are a species of salamander that never metamorphose out of the larval state, something like pollywogs that never become frogs. They used to be abundant in the lakes around the ancient city of Mexico, and were a favorite food of the Aztecs. Until recently, axolotls were said to be still living in the brackish canals of Xochimilco; in reality they're practically extinct even there. They survive in aquariums, laboratories, and zoos.

Aura loved the Julio Cortázar short story about a man who becomes so mesmerized by the axolotls in the Jardin des Plantes in Paris that he turns into an axolotl. Every day, sometimes even three times a day, the nameless man in that story visits the Jardin des Plantes to stare at the strange little animals in their cramped aquarium, at their translucent milky bodies and delicate lizard's tails, their pink flat triangular Aztec faces and tiny feet with nearly humanlike fingers, the odd reddish sprigs that sprout from their gills, the golden glow of their eyes, the way they hardly ever move, only now and then twitching their gills, or abruptly swimming with a single undulation of their bodies. They seem so alien that he becomes convinced they're not just animals, that they bear some mysterious relation to him, are mutely enslaved inside their bodies yet somehow, with their pulsing golden eyes, are begging him to save them. One day the man is staring at the axolotls as usual, his face close to the outside of the tank, but in the middle of that same sentence, the "I" is now on the inside of the tank, staring through the glass at the man, the transition happens just like that. The story ends with the axolotl hoping that he's succeeded in communicating something to the man, in bridging their silent solitudes, and that the reason the man no longer visits the aquarium is because he's off somewhere writing a story about what it is to be an axolotl.

The first time Aura and I went to Paris together, about five months after she'd moved in with me, she wanted to go to the Jardin des Plantes to see Cortázar's axolotls more than she wanted to do anything else. She'd been to Paris before, but had only recently discovered Cortázar's story. You would have thought that the only reason we'd flown to Paris was to see the axolotls, though actually Aura had an interview at the Sorbonne, because she was considering transferring from Columbia. Our very first afternoon, we went to the Jardin des Plantes, and paid to enter its small nineteenth-century zoo. In front of the entrance to the amphibian house, or vivarium, there was a mounted poster with information in French about amphibians and endangered species, illustrated with an image of a red-gilled axolotl in profile, its happy extraterrestrial's face and albino monkey arms and hands. Inside, the tanks ran in a row around the room, smallish illuminated rectangles set into the wall, each framing a somewhat different humid habitat: moss, ferns, rocks, tree branches, pools of water. We went from tank to tank, reading the placards: various species of salamanders, newts, frogs, but no axolotls. We circled the room again, in case we'd somehow missed them. Finally Aura went up to the guard, a middle-aged man in uniform, and asked where the axolotls were. He didn't know anything about the axolotls, but something in Aura's expression seemed to give him pause, and he asked her to wait; he left the room and a moment later came back with a woman, somewhat younger than him, wearing a blue lab coat. She and Aura spoke quietly, in French, so I couldn't understand what they were saying, but the woman's expression was lively and kind. When we went outside, Aura stood there for a moment with a quietly stunned expression. Then she told me that the woman remembered the axolotls; she'd even said that she missed them. But they'd been taken away a few years before and were now in some university laboratory. Aura was in her charcoal gray woolen coat, a whitish wool scarf wrapped around her neck, strands of her straight black hair mussed around her soft round cheeks, which were flushed as if burning with cold, though it wasn't particularly cold. Tears, just a few, not a flood, warm salty tears overflowed from Aura's brimming eyes and slid down her cheeks.

Who cries over something like that? I remember thinking. I kissed the tears, breathing in that briny Aura warmth. Whatever it was that so got to Aura about the axolotls not being there seemed part of the same mystery that the axolotl at the end of Cortázar's story hopes the man will reveal by writing a story. I always wished that I could know what it was like to be Aura.

Où sont les axolotls? she wrote in her notebook. Where are they?


Excerpted from Say Her Name by Francisco Goldman Copyright © 2011 by Francisco Goldman. Excerpted by permission of Grove Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
"Out of crushing loss and despair, Goldman has forged a radiant and transcendent masterpiece." —-Booklist Starred Review

Meet the Author

FRANCISCO GOLDMAN is the author of three novels: The Long Night of White Chickens, which won the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award; The Ordinary Seaman, a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and The Los Angeles Times Book Prize; and The Divine Husband. Goldman is also the author of the non-fiction book, The Art of Political Murder: Who killed the Bishop?, which was named a Best Book of the Year by The Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Economist. Goldman has been a contributing editor for Harper’s magazine, and his fiction, journalism and essays have appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, Esquire and The New York Times Magazine. He is the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation grant and the T. R. Fyvel Freedom of Expression Book Award, and was a fellow at the American Academy of Berlin and the Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library. He currently directs the Premio Aura Estrada/Aura Estrada Prize ( Goldman divides his time between Brooklyn and Mexico City.

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