Francisco Goldman's "Say Her Name" is a book of such terrible and haunting beauty that it is -- at once -- hard to read, like, classify or put down.
Exquisite while off-putting -- yet tantalizingly developed -- it is Goldman's lament for his late wife, lost to him without warning when she was felled by a wave 26 days shy of their second wedding anniversary.
That she was only 30, a promising young writer with a long life before her, is tragedy enough. The fact that she was married to Goldman, an established author 22 years her senior, makes her tragedy ours as well -- for Goldman makes, of Aura's death, the gift of "Say Her Name" to us.
"Hold her tight, if you have her; hold her tight," he cautions lovers everywhere. "Breathe her in, put your nose in her hair, breathe her in deeply. Say her name. It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it. Same alive as dead, always. Aura Estrada."
Yes, Aura was her name -- but what, exactly, is this book? Goldman's publisher, Grove Press, suggests that it "might be called -- if pushed (for a definition) -- a memoir novel." Goldman qualifies, "I've surrounded Aura and myself with a fictionalized family and friends for numerous reasons, including the duty to protect, to keep secrets, including our own secrets, while providing the space to write a true account of our lives -- Aura's and my own, with and without her."
Goldman may have had legal grounds, too, for fictionalizing his memoir -- for a number of reasons including the fact that he is apparently a man who kisses and tells.
But not while with Aura, the brilliant yet alarmingly childlike (and openly manipulative) girl Goldman met at a party in Manhattan in 2003, marrying her in her native Mexico two years later.
Goldman writes of their meeting being like "that Jose Jose song 'Gavilan o Paloma,' where he sings that he was pulled toward her like a wave, una ola, and he went up to her and said, 'hola.'
"That's how it happened," he tells us, how Aura (her name means "air") entered his orbit and suffused it with her presence, never leaving until una ola, with no warning whatsoever, pulled her away.
Significantly, this is far from all: "This is your fault," Aura's mother, Juanita, tells Goldman. "Esto es tu culpa."
From the first page of "Say Her Name," we know that Juanita wants to bring criminal charges against Goldman -- purportedly for not protecting her impetuous daughter from "una ola." The threat builds throughout the book. ("An open case is like a live animal," Goldman says.)
Perhaps it is unkind to say, but it is clearly the possibility of prosecution -- rather than the allure of the lost Aura -- that holds our attention here. For the Aura and Goldman of "Say Her Name" are, despite their formidable resumes, almost fanatically self-absorbed and sometimes so begging of admiration for their having found one another that they try the patience of the reader.
Aura, in addition, is maddening, both in her childish behavior, and in her endless demands -- which Goldman not only indulges but seems to delight in, shrugging them off as part of Aura's "childlike volubility."
Plus, the pair is forever losing or misplacing passports and other crucial documents. Aura risks her scholarship status at Columbia University by enrolling in a course elsewhere as well. Money is purportedly tight, but the two are always jumping on planes while keeping homes both in Brooklyn and in Mexico.
It is draining just to read of their irresponsibility -- save for Goldman's velvet pen. He spins gold here from his few years with Aura -- who was in the U.S. on several scholarships including a Fulbright grant and another from the Mexican government toward a Ph.D. in Spanish language literature.
"Waiting for the train to Brooklyn, listening, looking down into her face, so full of puppyish excitement and her own particular innocence: What was that innocence? What was Aura innocent of that I wasn't?" Goldman asks, overwhelmed at times by his affection for this "elfin" and "lyrical" child.
"At such moments, there on the subway platform, practically dizzy with love for her, I would sense how vulnerable she was -- so caught up in her own excitement, not paying attention, so physically slight -- to a shove from behind from some fiendish lunatic off his medication, into the path of an oncoming train. This recurring fear of a crazed subway pusher was sometimes so strong that I would almost feel the urge to push her off the platform myself, as if the fiendish lunatic was me and I needed to get the inevitable over with, or as if I just couldn't endure so much love and happiness one more second, and simultaneously, in a silent burst of panic, I'd pull her to safety, away from the edge of the platform."
Oddly, the Boston-born Goldman -- a novelist and professor of literature and creative writing -- is not always grammatical, often using "like" instead of "as," "I" where it should be "me," "her" where it should be "she." He also misses an opportunity to endear Aura to us further by not including photographs of the child-woman who so bewitched him.
But he does include wonderful bits and pieces of Aura's writing, some of it from her childhood and later diaries, much of it from her notes and unfinished fiction. ("Juanita had Aura's ashes -- I had her diaries.")
Goldman himself is winning when describing Mexico and its people as well as Aura's response to life in New York City. And he is stunning when, at last, he gives us what he calls his narrative of the day Aura was taken from him by a wave, una ola that Goldman later wonders about, in terms of its inception probably well before Aura put her foot into the Pacific at Mexico's Mazunte Beach.
"That night, as we slept, where was Aura's wave in its long journey to Mazunte? Having done some research on waves since, I'm certain that that wave already existed," he writes. "Most surface waves of any decent size, even the moderate-sized waves that reach Mazunte on a normal day, have come thousands of miles. . "
It was recklessness on Aura's part, impulsivity and just like Aura, that she threw herself into una ola when she knew very little about bodysurfing -- and Goldman's telling of the moment is searing and unforgettable.
It also clearly underscores the loss of Aura not only to Goldman, and to Aura's family and friends, but to scores of readers, particularly Spanish language readers, now deprived of the fiction Aura would surely have written. A certain amount of already completed work has been published posthumously, including a short story in the New Yorker -- but that is, we know, far from enough.
In the end, we mourn and perhaps even miss the unbridled -- and brilliant -- Aura. We join Goldman in his grief, knowing we cannot help him.
"Inconsolable doesn't mean that you are sometimes consolable," he says. "You have to, can only, live this on your own."
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.
Say Her Name
By Francisco Goldman
Grove Press350 pages, $24