The Face Tells the Secret

  • Review
By – January 6, 2020

Jane Bernstein’s emo­tion­al­ly pierc­ing nov­el, The Face Tells the Secret, fol­lows Rox­anne G as she slow­ly peels back the lay­ers of her sto­ry in the wake of her mother’s fad­ing mem­o­ry. When Rox­anne trav­els to Tel Aviv to help care for her moth­er, she dis­cov­ers the truth of anoth­er daugh­ter: Avi­va, her severe­ly dis­abled twin sis­ter — who was sent to live in a res­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ty in the vil­lage of Chaver­im. The first time Rox­anne vis­its Avi­va in the nata­to­ri­um, she is forced to con­front her own iden­ti­ty through the image of her twin’s face: The face, her face, like mine, the flut­ter­ing eyes and crowd­ed teeth; a being, a woman, a sis­ter, sep­a­rate from me, part of me. I had yearned for a sis­ter, but not this, not her. The air was so thick I could hard­ly breathe.” From this moment on, Rox­anne must reck­on with the implau­si­bil­i­ty of shar­ing a lan­guage to bridge the gap between them as the sis­ter unable to ver­bal­ly com­mu­ni­cate and the sis­ter who can, but who is at a loss for the words to do so.

It is only after meet­ing a reg­u­lar vis­i­tor of the home, Baruch, that Rox­anne begins her search for those words — the sto­ry — that has elud­ed her for so many years. Baruch is a sci­en­tist expe­ri­enced in study­ing faces and the micro-expres­sions that tell a sto­ry beyond the sur­face. His research on mater­nal depres­sion in moth­er-infant bond­ing leads Rox­anne to exam­ine all the ways she has suf­fered under her mother’s detach­ment over the years, par­tic­u­lar­ly when it comes to her abil­i­ty to enter lov­ing rela­tion­ships. As Rox­anne begins to fall in love with Baruch, not only does he help Rox­anne rec­og­nize the oth­er­ness inher­ent to lov­ing the word­less­ness of Avi­va, but he also push­es her to sep­a­rate from the tyran­ny of her mother’s gaze: the look of bit­ter dis­dain that has pre­vent­ed Rox­anne from lov­ing her­self since she was a child.

In the wake of her mother’s death, Rox­anne real­izes that her mother’s gaze — as soft and unknow­able as Aviva’s” — is a sym­bol of the immea­sur­able dis­tance between her­self and the trag­ic sto­ry behind Aviva’s inabil­i­ty to com­mu­ni­cate. It is only in choos­ing to accept Baruch’s love that Rox­anne finds the courage to get to know Avi­va, despite the pain and loss writ­ten on her body. While spend­ing more time with Avi­va at the nata­to­ri­um, Rox­anne embraces her sister’s word­less lan­guage for the first time through the smell of chlo­rine, the light in the bub­ble columns, the neon wands in the bas­ket, absorb­ing these scents and sounds as if she were Aviva.”

Aviva’s lan­guage, embed­ded in the sens­es, ulti­mate­ly becomes the vehi­cle for Roxanne’s will­ing­ness to open her­self up to Baruch’s sen­su­al, inex­plic­a­ble pres­ence in ways that would have been impos­si­ble oth­er­wise. Only in let­ting go of the known world, can she sur­ren­der to the greater mys­tery of what it means to love another.

Jaclyn Gilbert earned her B.A. at Yale and her MFA from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege. Her sto­ries, essays, and reviews have appeared in Tin House, Lit Hub, Long Reads, Post Road Mag­a­zine, and else­where. Late Air her first nov­el, released from Lit­tle A last November.

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