A Marriage’s Tragic Early End
By ROBIN ROMM
Published: April 7, 2011
In the first scene of Francisco Goldman’s passionate and moving autobiographical novel (or fictionalized memoir, depending on your bias), he travels to Paris with his young girlfriend, Aura Estrada. At her insistence, they go to the Jardin des Plantes to see the exotic salamanders Julio Cortázar wrote about in his famous story “Axolotl.” She wants to stare at them through the glass of their aquarium like the story’s protagonist. The wish to stare through glass to come to an understanding (of the axolotl, of the workings of a writer’s mind, of what cannot truly be understood) elegantly conveys the project of “Say Her Name,” this beautifully written account of Goldman’s short marriage to Estrada, a fiction writer who died in a bodysurfing accident in 2007, two years into their marriage, when she was 30.
Attempting to understand a tragedy is, in a way, an impossible pursuit. How can one ever understand death? But in the face of it, what can anyone do but try? And so, Goldman studies the sequence of events that led to the accident that cut his wife’s promising life so short. The book jumps back and forth, following Goldman’s associations and memories — from that blissful trip to Paris, to Brooklyn after Aura’s death, to their first encounter at a literary event at New York University, to Aura’s childhood in Mexico City (which he pieces together from her diaries), then to their daily rituals and comedies as a married couple. But over and over, the book returns to his deep and consuming bereavement. There’s a restlessness to this time travel. It resembles the pacing of the grief-struck — the fruitless, but crucial, back-and-forth journey that leads from one truth (I loved her) to the other truth (she died), until the mind can begin to comprehend that those two possibilities coexist.
Estrada’s mother accuses Goldman of playing a role in her daughter’s death, and as a result, the book opens with a series of tantalizing fragments like this: “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.” The initial structure appears to nod at true crime, and indeed, along with three well-regarded novels, Goldman has written a book of true crime, “The Art of Political Murder.” But while Goldman’s gifts as a reporter are on full display (he interviews Estrada’s estranged father, plumbs her diaries, researches the science of waves), 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.
Goldman revels in Estrada’s perfectly imperfect beauty. When he first meets her, he notes her “elfin prettiness” and “gleaming black eyes.” But he’s equally taken by her voice, “husky and raspy, a little bit nasal, somewhat like a cartoon character’s.” Her nose, described as “large and speckled,” looked “friendly and full of personality.”
She is considerably younger than Goldman, 25 to his 47 when they meet, and at times, her youth seems to be part of what fascinates and beguiles Goldman, who describes himself as immature, an occasional “man-boy.” Goldman reconnects not just to a foregone youth, but to something untarnished in Estrada’s being. Her passions are unsullied. She keeps a Hello Kitty toaster in the kitchen and a closet filled with dresses she tries on but won’t wear. She’s easily swept into dramas with her girlfriends. After a few drinks, she waxes poetic, reciting George Herbert from memory. She bursts into tears during violent films. To Goldman, her sudden hysterics “had seemed kind of magical, like the clairvoyant empathy of a holy child, and I remember thinking that everybody at least now and then should react like that to the world’s murderous horrors.”
Estrada’s observations are frequently striking and precise, the hallmark of a budding fiction writer. When Goldman balances on a ladder to change a lightbulb, she tells him, “You look like an amateur bird.” Recollecting a childhood terror, she describes a cabdriver’s head looking like “a dead planet radiating antimatter.”
Like Goldman, she recognizes the gorgeousness of imperfection, and engages in the flirtatious cruelties that layer their intimacy. “Ay mi amor, qué feo eres!” she says. (“Oh my love, how ugly you are!”) She compares him to a frog, all the while playing up a magnetic vanity. “You are so lucky, Francisco, she would say. You are the luckiest man on earth, to have a young, intelligent, talented wife who loves you the way I do. Do you know how lucky you are?” I am so drawn to this forward, funny, precocious young woman, I found myself wishing I could dig into that scene and just snatch her out of it.
But perhaps what I most admire, in Goldman’s portrayal of Estrada, is his reverent respect for her mysterious inner life, for the complex variables that kept her partially unknowable. A child under enormous maternal pressure to become an academic (she attends the University of Texas at Austin, Brown and Columbia), Estrada had not had much time for free-spirited explorations. In her diary, she recounts a transformative trip she took in her 20s to a quiet beach, a beach her mother never let her visit. “She discovered a new way to be there, she thought, a self that had always been hidden from her, truer, she felt convinced, than the anxious, self-protective and defiantly lippy girl of Mexico City.” This quieter, spiritual Estrada presents herself, also, during a trip to Tulum with Goldman, after a rough patch in their marriage. On a nearby beach they paused. “Soon we were watching the iridescent pastels of the sunset spreading over the water and blazing in the sky above the strip of jungle between us and the ocean, the whole place throbbing with bird calls, as if every glowing tree and plant hid a boisterous bird or two, and we both felt stunned into separate peaceful meditations on the crazy sublimity of what we were witnessing, each of us filling with a sense of mystical wonder and loneliness that merged into one mystical wonder and loneliness together.”
Of course, memory is unreliable, and Goldman laments this. “Sometimes it’s like juggling a hundred thousand crystal balls in the air all at once, trying to keep all these memories going. Every time one falls to the floor and shatters into dust, another crevice cracks open inside me, through which another chunk of who we were disappears forever.” Throughout the book, he furiously attempts to hold on to what can be kept: mittens, hats, rings, as if they have the power to anchor him to the world.
A few times, the book bucks its already messy categorization as nonfiction novel or fictionalized memoir, grief book or love story, and becomes a distilled wail. In these moments of direct address to the dead, Goldman’s heartbreak is palpable. “I’m terrified of losing you in me. . . . I still sometimes find myself trying to skip down our sidewalk as you used to, my angel.” He wishes that everyone could stop to remember Aura. In his rich reconstruction of their love of each other, of humor, of life and of language, Goldman has, in effect, granted his own wish.