This American author could hardly believe his luck when he won the heart of a beautiful young Spanish literature student named Aura Estrada. She was doing her Ph.D. at Columbia University and looked like a “Mexican Björk.” In his mid-forties when they met, Goldman felt he was in danger of getting carried away, “like a romping puppy in a field of tulips.” In 2007, his elation was cut short when Aura died, just 30 years old, in a surfing accident in Mexico. This is the set-up for Say Her Name, a heartbreaking novel born from Goldman’s personal loss, with a self-titled lead character trying to carry on under the same circumstances.
With tremendous skill, Goldman describes the way grief can blindside a widower—he stumbles upon the indentation of Aura’s fingers, “like fossils,” in her body scrub. He reads her unfinished fiction. He sleeps with her friends (not as creepy as it sounds, the way Goldman describes it) and quits his teaching job. While coping with feelings of complicity in Aura’s accident, he must also deflect the blame coming his way from Aura’s formidable mother and uncle in Mexico. The mystery surrounding the protagonist’s guilt is the most interesting and unexpected aspect of the book, keeping the suspense high and acting as a release valve from all the grieving.
“Four years [with Aura]—are those too few years to hold such significance in a grown man’s life?” he asks, rhetorically. Goldman, the character and author blurring together, is afraid he’ll never recover, and readers share his concern. “You have to, can only, live this on your own,” he says of losing a spouse.
Some elements of the book are fiction, but the emotions are unmistakably real. The story is raw with pain, but it’s also a tribute to Aura and her ability to spread joy. Goldman includes quotes from her fiction, which isn’t nearly as remarkable as his own, but it hardly matters. He just wants to share his Aura with the world and help her get published—her personal goal—even posthumously. “Say her name,” Goldman advises fellow widowers. “It will always be her name. Not even death can steal it.”