How much of our own lives should writers use as material? What should we reveal and what hold back? What, for a writer, is privacy? Do writers even have private lives? These are questions raised by Francisco Goldman’s newest book, “Say Her Name.”
Goldman is the author of the marvelous and much-acclaimed novel “The Long Night of White Chickens” and three other books. Raised in Boston and Guatemala, he’s a perceptive observer of the United States and Latin America, full of vitality and charm. His new book is described as a novel, although the events are real and happened to the author. The novel’s protagonist is the American-Latin American writer Francisco Goldman. This raises another question: What’s the difference between a novel and a memoir? But we’ll get to that.
In 2005, Goldman married the beautiful Aura Estrada, a young woman who spanned his worlds as a Mexican PhD candidate in Spanish-language literature at Columbia University. They had a romantic wedding and planned a rich, literary and adventurous life, full of books and children. But just before their second wedding anniversary, she was killed in a nightmarish swimming accident, in the surf off Mexico’s Pacific coast.
The opening sets the stage for tragedy and infamy. We learn that Aura died and that her mother and uncle brought a lawsuit against Goldman, accusing him of responsibility for her death.
Juanita’s maternal passion for Aura, her only child, is deep and potent. “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.” Goldman, who, as Aura’s husband, comes between the two, wonders whether he, Aura and her mother form “a love-hate triangle.” And after Aura’s death, caught in the twisted grip of grief, Juanita and her brother bring legal action, as though death were not terrible enough, and as though a court could demand a different outcome.
The book emerges as a kind of formal response to this accusation. Aura’s last words to Goldman were “Love me a lot, my love” and then “I don’t want to die.”
“Did that sound self-exculpating?” Goldman wonders. “Sure, Aura’s plea and invocation of love would play well on any jury’s emotions and sympathies, but I’m not in a courtroom. I need to stand nakedly before the facts; there’s no way to fool this jury that I am facing. It all matters, and it’s all evidence.”
It all matters, his narrative, not because Goldman feels guilty before Juanita, but because he needs to make sense of what has happened. He needs, as writers do, to explore each moment for meaning and emotion. The story unfolds as a sequence of long flashbacks leading toward Aura’s death, which ticks grimly through the narrative like a bomb.
Grief is the engine here, and Goldman tells his story with longing and regret. They first meet at a literary panel in New York. Goldman, more than 20 years Aura’s senior, is dazzled by the 25-year-old. She’s “a slight, pretty young woman, black hair in a chic pixie cut and gleaming black eyes — an elfin prettiness, a slim and lovely build, vivid lips, red lipstick. She smiled at me with that smile and I must have smiled back as if I couldn’t believe my luck.”
Goldman provides background by describing his own complicated Jewish-Hispanic family, and also Aura’s — her powerful mother, her distant stepfather, her enigmatic uncle, her lost father. A friend warns him that entering Aura’s world will be challenging. And Aura tells him, “I have an uncle who’s going to hate you. And you’re going to hate him.” But he embraces them all: He wants her family, her memories, her life to be part of his own.
And why not? Aura is ravishingly beautiful, brilliantly intelligent, funny, generous, perceptive and astute. He is entranced and dazed by her arrival in his life. “That sweet elation of waking up and finding her beside me in bed,” he writes. “The apartment filling up with music I’d never heard before, tuneful, clever, girl music . . . on the happiest mornings of my life so far. (Four years later I still hadn’t gotten over it, the daily surprise of happiness.)”
Goldman makes the case for his own innocence, still crazed with grief. Trapped in a Chinese puzzle box of anguish, he revisits moments, words, thoughts, anecdotes and images. His life with Aura seems still to be happening inside him, playing itself over and over, inevitably interrupted but never ended.
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.
Robinson’s most recent book is the novel “Cost.”
SAY HER NAME
By Francisco Goldman
Grove. 350 pages. $24