There is more of life in this brief account of a sudden, devastating loss than you might be likely to find in many a multi-volume life story. And that, really, is what the author is after. A few years after his young wife's death in a body surfing accident off the coast of Mexico, Francisco Goldman has set out to understand, in writing, what happened; and, in writing, he has given his love a new life, ample evidence at last that her death was not meaningless -- the most frightening possibility he must face.
Goldman, author of the celebrated novel "The Long Night of White Chickens" and "The Art of Political Murder," a book about the assassination of a Guatemalan Catholic bishop, met Mexican graduate student Aura Estrada at a book event. He was 20 years her senior, giddy with interest, befuddled with doubt. In "Say Her Name," Goldman begins with Aura's awful death and some of the accompanying blows (her mother will not speak to him, claims it is his fault, a blame he readily accepts), then haltingly takes us back into her life.
We see Aura as he first saw her -- the "elfin prettiness," "gleaming black eyes," "that smile." As the book progresses, those token traits are replaced with finely observed expressions, remarks, intimate moments -- and a genuine person emerges, her sweetness and irritability, her brilliance and goofiness and insecurities. We watch her struggle with the heady business of critical theory at Columbia University ("We have to get rid of this naive love you have for the literary text," her star professor tells her) as she strives to become an author of such discredited texts, writing short stories and starting her first novel in her MFA workshop at City College of New York.
Goldman includes pieces of Aura's writing, which, certainly, document her progress. One of the great difficulties for the author is the extent to which his wife of not quite two years must be recognized for a potential never to be realized. Her life, however, is a matter of record, and Goldman moves back and forth between her childhood, her academic achievement, her literary aspirations and her life with him, always circling back to her death and his life without her.
It is only near the end that we get the full story of what happened. By then, Aura has become real enough to be truly mourned, and the shock of losing her is ours, as well.
Ellen Akins is a novelist in Cornucopia, Wis. She teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.