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.