A potent combination of terror and wonder fills the pages of Sabrina Orah Mark’s “Happily: A Personal History — with Fairy Tales.” In this stunning memoir-in-essays, most of which was previously published in her “Happily” column for “The Paris Review,” Mark favors the fantastical over more-traditional forms of self-examination and narrative. As she states in the prologue, “Like stretches of ancient roads, I connect pieces of fairy tales to walk me through motherhood, and marriage, and weather, and loneliness, and failure, and inheritance, and love.”
Mark, who grew up in Brooklyn and now lives with her family in Athens, tends to these themes (and fairy tales) throughout her essays. However, “Happily,” at large and in all its adverb glory, is an imaginative, often gut-wrenching pondering of family and home.
Mark’s two young sons, Noah and Eli, center her understanding of family, and she is at her best when writing about motherhood. “Ghost People” finds Noah crafting figures from woodchips he finds on the playground (which Mark likens to the mythic Jewish golem), comforting himself but eliciting concern from his teacher, who doesn’t share Noah’s or Mark’s sense of whimsy.
The essay segues into an analysis of “Pinocchio” — “the story of a boy carved from a tree” — and the 2018 shootings at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, a horror Mark keeps from her sons. In a discussion at her own synagogue, typically a place of belonging for Mark, someone suggests that she is creating a bubble around her children. She replies, “My children ask me if their Black father was ever a slave. They ask me if they will ever be turned into slaves. They ask me if I will ever be turned into a slave for being their mother. As Black Jewish boys, my children will never be in a bubble. But if there was a bubble big enough, I’d move there in a second.”
In “Rat-A-Tat-Tat” Mark does tell her sons the hard truth that her grandmother has died, recognizing that Grandma Gert is their family, too. She doesn’t want her grandmother’s absence to be a “cold, empty nameless thing,” like the dwarves in the Brothers Grimm’s “Snow White,” who choose not to bury Snow White in the ground but rather place her in a glass coffin so they can watch her body “not decay.”
“Little Red Riding Hood” and “the death pamphlet” a rabbi offers to explain death to children become part of Mark’s process of grieving and understanding how she wants her sons to think about death. The essay ends with Mark asking Eli, who has earlier seen Grandma Gert in the flame of Shabbat candles, where her grandmother is.
“She’s right there,” he says, pointing to Mark’s journals and her husband’s published books. Then he puts his hand on Mark’s shoulder and adds, “And also … everywhere.” Charming, wise pieces of her sons’ dialog such as this add buoyance to this sometimes-dense book.
The fairy-tale archetype in “The Evil Stepmother” likewise offers readers access while providing Mark another lens through which to see family and her home with her husband, “possibly the gentlest man on earth.” Mark has three stepdaughters from his two previous marriages, but 17-year-old Eve visits the most.
“I love my stepdaughter, but I don’t love being a stepmother,” Mark writes. “It’s grim work. The stepmother swings like a light bulb back and forth, causing the mother who is not there to glow.” This candor wrapped in metaphor begins Mark’s reckoning of her perceived shortcomings with Eve, one incorporating wisdom from fairy tales and books by noted American authors alike. When Eve appears in a subsequent essay, she’s about to move in, along with her pet tarantula, Mavis. In an act of devotion, Mark watches a video of a tarantula molting, its exoskeleton being left behind, prompting a frank discussion of inheritance.
Mark’s mother, whose own frank observations often contrast Mark’s anxious dreaminess, is a link to the author’s past. The prologue and several essays reference her return trips to New York to visit her mother. Mark juxtaposes the home she has built with her husband and children with the one she left behind, revealing that as children she and her brothers lived alone in an apartment for several years while their mother lived eight floors above.
Nevertheless, her mother remains an engaging character, one who sometimes seems to rise from Mark’s psyche. It is fitting that in “An Epilogue: After Ever” the two have a poignant exchange, more imagined than real, ending with: “‘How are you calling me,’ I ask, ‘inside a fairy tale?’ ‘How are you answering?’ she asks.”
In other essays, Mark writes achingly about her sister’s cancer and her husband’s cancer, the latter a crisis that allows her father to demonstrate how he is not an “ineffective at best” fairy-tale father. She writes eloquently about fairy tales the Polish writer, artist and literary critic Bruno Schultz painted on the nursery walls of a Gestapo officer’s son that are now housed in Yad Veshem, Jerusalem’s Holocaust museum.
The essays’ non-linear movement might discourage some readers. However, Mark’s brave, authentic voice, honed, in part, in two previous poetry collections and her 2018 surrealist short-fiction collection “Wild Milk,” more than compensates.
As ancient as fairy tales are, “Happily” reminds us that they remain living, breathing guides. As complicated as family connections are, Mark reminds us that they are the source of love and understanding. May our troubled kingdom take comfort in this wonderful book.
“Happily: A Personal History — With Fairy Tales”
By Sabrina Orah Mark
224 pages, $27
About the Author
Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@