Rob Brunner
March 30, 2011 AT 04:00 AM EDT

Say Her Name

Current Status
In Season
Francisco Goldman
Grove Press

We gave it an A-

Francisco Goldman’s wife, Aura Estrada, died unexpectedly in 2007. She was 30 years old, a fiction writer and academic who loved Jorge Luis Borges and Belle & Sebastian and looked, Goldman writes, ”like a Mexican Björk.” This quietly devastating novel finds him grappling with Aura’s life and death: the four years they spent as a couple, her childhood and budding literary career, and his own terrible struggle with her loss, which sits in him like ”a hard hollow rectangle filled with tepid blank air.” His story unfolds gently, like a muted conversation in an empty bar, the tone numb and hushed.

Goldman doesn’t keep his wife’s passing a secret — he reveals it in the very first sentence of Say Her Name. But for most of the book he explores the before and after while dancing around the details of what actually happened. The effect is powerful. As the story builds — inevitably, unbearably — toward Aura’s last day, Goldman has so convincingly brought her to life that her death still somehow comes as a shock.

Say Her Name is ostensibly a novel, but some Googling suggests that the basic story is true. Why call it fiction, then? At several points Goldman writes about competing narratives, the ways memories conflict and different stories can grow out of the same facts. Maybe Goldman, a former journalist, just couldn’t bear the pressure of ”the truth,” of worrying about anyone’s take on Aura but his own. But even that proves slippery, as the author wrestles with himself, trying to comprehend exactly what happened that terrible day. Is he to blame for her death, as her mother alleges? Goldman’s beautifully written, deeply felt ode to his wife isn’t afraid to confront that and other painful questions. Most of all, though, it lets you meet this unusual woman through Goldman’s lovestruck gaze, and you can’t help falling for her a little too. Even after the book ends, the sting of Aura’s absence lingers. A?

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