The Face Tells the Secret
by Jane Bernstein
Agora Books, 289 pp.
Reviewed by Julie Zuckerman
What does it mean to grow up without context? To never hear one’s parents speak of their own upbringings or family history, to know only the vaguest outlines of what transpired in one’s own life as a baby or toddler, before lasting memories are formed? This fate might easily be the realm of children ripped from their families – the hidden children of the Holocaust, for example, or the more recent, horrifying cases of children separated from their parents on the U.S. southern border.
This is one of the central questions explored in The Face Tells the Secret. Roxanne Garlick knows her family is different from the other families in their New Jersey suburb – her Israeli parents are distant and her mother Leona, the first woman department head at Bell Labs, proudly proclaims that she is “not in the least bit maternal.” Her parents pass down no information of their history or their families.
"I must have asked before I knew not to ask, because I recall the way my mother looked at me when I came close to an unmentionable topic, her gaze so fierce I quickly averted my eyes in shame."
Roxanne learns she is Jewish only when a schoolmate asks, “What are you?” and she prods her father for an answer.
"But what is Jewish? My parents considered themselves more fully evolved than our church-going neighbors with their bathtub virgins, or the typical suburban Jews with their kosher kitchens who ate spareribs and shrimp at the local Chinese restaurant. We had no Chanukah bush…we celebrated no holidays, had no family traditions, no siblings, cousins, uncles, aunts. It seemed, then that “Jewish” was a category, a label for a box. But the box was empty. When asked my religion, I learned to say “Nothing.”"
Roxanne’s early years are dispatched quickly, within two chapters; the main story unfolds when she is an adult, her marriage failed, her father no longer alive, and her formidable mother, at 80, has moved to Tel Aviv without explanation. Roxanne, now living in Pittsburgh, is in and out of a relationship with a man who continually professes his love, but his neediness quickly becomes overwhelming. She tries to leave him many times, but his mental state is unstable and often threatens to harm himself. Thinking to surprise Roxanne, he flies her mother in from Israel, but the trip disorients Leona; she is still her feisty old self but now on a downward spiral towards dementia. And so, despite her mother’s persistent ill-treatment, Roxanne dutifully accompanies her confused mother back to Tel Aviv, and it is only now, as a middle-aged woman, that she begins the journey of unraveling the context of her life.
From Leona’s doctor comes a startling revelation: Roxanne has a sister. The revelation validates something she’s always known, a piece of her puzzle – perhaps the first piece – fitting into place, “more a feeling than something I had put into words.” Yet Leona remains obstinate, refusing to acknowledge her other daughter.
With the help of Israeli cousins, Roxanne begins to unlock more clues: she learns that her sister was profoundly disabled, living in a residential facility in the Galilee, but is now presumed dead. Roxanne’s father would visit his daughter two or three times a year, but the cousins cannot offer more information, not even her name. A single photograph of two babies reveals that the sister is in fact, Roxanne’s twin.
Later, back in Pittsburgh, when her cousin’s daughter suggests to Roxanne that her sister may yet be alive, the idea sends Roxanne into a fit of terror about what she might find.
"This shell that held the self was not mine, not me, because there was no me, no bottom to this sea. Just these silent words – I cannot – before the mirror shattered and fell into itself like a building imploding. I saw the broken glass and my own arm drawn back, smashing into the space where the mirror had been…I took the scissors from the desk and cut the bed sheet in half, then covered the mirrors…I was not really Jewish, and yet I knew this was done during shiva…Now, though, there was no family or friend, no body or soul, no funeral or burial, no handful of dirt thrown in the coffin, no impossibly blue sky – the sign of an uncaring world – no bitter rain as metaphor, no history. No sister. No self."
This shiva-like act, mourning the sister she never knew, mourning her empty self, begins Roxanne’s rebirth. With the help of her cousin, she learns that Aviva, her twin, is indeed alive. Roxanne flies back to Israel to meet her, terrified, but willing herself forward. When Roxanne first glimpses her sister, Aviva is in a therapeutic pool being cradled by a man who swirls her around in the water, almost dancing. She learns that Aviva cannot speak or walk or understand.
"The woman, my sister, her jaw slack, mouth hanging open as if she were asleep. Long white limbs, Hands fisted, feet turned in at the ankles. A being. The shock of seeing her breasts. A woman, the body perfectly formed, for what? The face, her face, like mine; the futtering 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."
Here the other question the book asks comes into focus: What responsibility do we bear for caring for others, even those who may not know we are there? As Roxanne learns more about her sister and her condition, she is distraught, overcome with nausea, wondering if she should have listened to the cousin who’d warned her not to bother.
Slowly, Roxanne begins to open herself up to being a sister and relating to this person with whom she once shared a womb. She is filled with questions about Aviva large and small: “Does she wake of her own accord? “If she was roused by activity, did she think morning and anticipate all that was in store for her?—nourishment, an aide with strong arms, sunlight, music.”
Roxanne later learns that Baruch, the man who’d been in the pool with Aviva, is not an aide at all, but a visitor who volunteers his time to make his visits to his profoundly disabled nephew more bearable. He becomes Roxanne’s teacher – telling her, “You will let her feel your presence. You will make sure she’s comfortable…She will not thank you […or] look in your eyes” – and then her friend and lover. Roxanne strives to understand, and feels a responsibility toward the wounded people who made up her family, especially the parents who kept so much from her. No longer an empty shell, Roxanne finds that she can finally achieve some measure of grace.
The Face Tells the Secret is an emotionally perceptive read that is both deeply moving and a page-turner. Bernstein’s complex, struggling characters allow readers to experience the full range of the human condition: pain, compassion, forgiveness and ultimately, joy and redemption.
Julie Zuckerman‘s debut novel-in-stories, The Book of Jeremiah, was the runner up for the 2018 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction and was published in May 2019. Her writing has appeared in CRAFT, Tikkun Magazine, Crab Orchard Review, Salt Hill, The SFWP Quarterly, and Sixfold, among others. She is the founder of the Literary Modiin author series, which hosts writers talking about their work. Julie's novel was reviewed on this website - read it here.