Friday 3 August 2012

Say Her Name

To write of love and death and grief with self-consciousness, with self-reflection, without self-indulgence; to write a story of death which is full of humour and movement, full of life in short, is quite a feat. It's the gift to all of us from a true writer: to be able to share the essentially unsharable, make the specific universal and the universal specific.

A few years ago, I was at a literary translation event where a Mexican novelist and a British translator of Spanish mentioned a man they both knew, Francisco Goldman ("no, he's American, a Latina mother, but he writes - novels and non-fiction - in English"). A story as stark and tragic as any novel: he'd been married, they said - rather late in life, very happily - to a younger Mexican woman who died in a freak accident, body-surfing off a beach in Mexico. They said what a nice guy he was, what a good writer, and how sad it was. There was a small, shocked pause and the dinner-table talk moved on.

I recalled this conversation when a book appeared in London bookshops this year: Say Her Name, by Francisco Goldman, a novel about the extraordinary, ordinary woman he married, their love and her death.

"I still regularly imagine Aura is beside me on the sidewalk. Sometimes I imagine I’m holding her hand, and walk with my arm held out by my side a little. Nobody is surprised to see people talking to themselves in the street anymore, assuming that they must be speaking into some Bluetooth device. But people do stare when they notice they your eyes are red and wet, your lips twisted into a sobbing grimace. I wonder what they think they are seeing and what they imagine has caused the weeping. On the surface, a window has briefly, alarmingly, opened."

It's a brilliantly structured book, whose narrative emerges in glimpses, moving not forward but around and around, never letting you go, as the writer's grief and memories go around and around and never let him go: "a window has briefly, alarmingly, opened" into a life in crisis.

This evocation of an ordinary love story between two literary types, a middle-aged journalist and novelist and a younger PhD student and aspiring novelist, is tender, intimate, hilarious and heart-breaking - as full of life as it is of death. It paints a deeply unromantic picture of the deepest romantic truths: that people, together and separately, are much more than we can rationally account for; that those we love don't die before us, because they become woven into our hearts. It pulls on the heartstrings in the best and most powerful of ways. It takes a dark and confused route and ends up convincing us that that which is most painful is also most life-affirming.

"I was back at my Condesa gym two weeks after Aura’s death… I felt a hard hollow rectangle filled with tepid blank air. An empty rectangle with sides of slate or lead, that’s how I visualized it, holding dead air, like the unstirred air inside an elevator shaft in a long-abandoned building. I thought I understood what it was, and told myself, The people who feel this way all the time are the ones who commit suicide. I wanted to just get off the bike and run away, or drop to the floor in fetal position, or raise my arm and call for help. But I kept pedaling hard, moving to the music and the instructor’s commands, and the rectangle full of dead air slowly faded."

This book moved me so much. I picked it up to re-read and then put it down again - it's so sad, so upsetting. But quite soon, in the right mood, I did find myself re-reading it. It's truly company for the reader in the way I crave the company of books, as the next best thing to real people. In that capacity, of course, they so often disappoint. This book did not.

To bring off something so raw and direct demands of the writer a magical weaving of raw emotion with the highest level of craft and sophistication. To make of grief something so finely crafted that is still... grief: oh, this is rare!

We know from the start that Aura died. The reader is taken in endless, obsessive circles with the mind and memories of the bereaved writer as he tells the story of their relationship, the gradual deepening of his knowledge of her, his memories of scene after scene from their daily life and conversations. Back and back through the story, around and around with his grief we go, until we know this woman very well, have spent months and years with her, by the time we witness – in the very last pages - her death.

"Aura always just closed the lid of her laptop when she was done working for the day, so when I opened it later, I found the screen as she’d left it. There were two open documents, the latest version of her story about the schoolteacher, and something new, probably the start of yet another short story, titled ‘Hay seƱales en la vida?' Or, Does Life Give Us Signs?"

It's a complex book that must have taken a long, long time to write, just as grief takes a long, long time to become something that can be lived with.

Just four years after they met, Aura, in the midst of this life we've seen painted in such loving detail, tries to surf a fatal wave, floats to the surface almost lifeless and hours later is dead. It's devastating. In a small way, the reader understands how following her story around and around through the blockages of grief and the inexorable, circling movements of memory has somehow been cathartic.

At the end of the book is a photo that they used on their wedding invitation. Just the bottom half of Aura and less than half of Francisco - dark, headless figures hand-in-hand, and their shadows on a cobbled street. It's the kind of photo I'm always trying to take, that by showing less directly shows more.

"One morning I found myself standing in the kitchen looking through the window at the chair on the fire escape as if I’d never seen it before. That’s when I thought to name it Aura’s Journey Chair. I imagined her descending slowly down a long shaft of yellow-pink translucent light, in a sitting position, holding a book open in her hands, landing softly in the chair, returned from her long, mysterious journey. She glances up from her book, notices me watching through the kitchen window, and says, like always, in her cheerful, hoarse-sounding voice, Hola, mi amor.
Hola, mi amor. But where did you go? Why were you away so long? I know you didn’t
get married just to go off by yourself like that and leave me alone here!"

I can't recommend this book too highly. It's a one-off, as funny, individual and eccentric as it is almost unbearably sad.

"The parlor… was our bedroom. It has such tall ceilings that to change a light-bulb in the hanging lamp I’d climb a five-foot stepladder, stand on tiptoes atop its rickety pinnacle and reach up as high as I could, though still end up bent over, arms flapping, fighting for balance – Aura, watching from her desk in the corner, said, You look like an amateur bird."


Lucy said...

What a beautifully crafted, beautifully structured review, a worthy tribute to the book, and very persuasive to reading it. Thanks, Jean.

Dale said...

Gorgeous review. I don't think I could endure reading the book.

Beth said...

What you wrote -- so beautifully -- about this book has reduced me to helpless tears. I don't know if I could read it either, but I am very glad I read your words.

Beth said...

Jean - I also absolutely love the photograph you chose to accompany this review.

Jean said...

Beth, thanks for 'getting' the photo - it felt just like the book to me: very vivid and alive, but through a window, somewhere other than here...

Natalie said...

Yes, a wonderful from-the-heart review.

I did see it reviewed in a couple of newspapers a while back but only yours made me feel that now I'll *have* to read the book.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful tribute to this book, both your text and the photo you chose to accompany it. To make something beautiful out of that grief, to be truthful and to extend himself in that way, is not only catharsis but generosity.

Anna said...

I've ordered it immediately!