HAPPILY: A Personal History, With Fairy Tales, by Sabrina Orah Mark
There’s a point when you realize that the fairy tales you read as a child were eerily prescient. Their familiar plots surface everywhere as the cumulative absurdity of everyday life warps your consciousness. “Fairy tales themselves are well-trodden paths,” writes Sabrina Orah Mark in “Happily,” her new essay collection. “I connect pieces of fairy tales to walk me through motherhood, and marriage, and America, and weather, and loneliness, and failure, and inheritance, and love.” When history and truth are subject to excruciating debate, returning to the ur-texts of one’s childhood seems completely sensible.
In 2018, Mark, known for her surreal short fiction and poetry collections, began writing personal essays inspired by fairy tales for The Paris Review Daily. She and her husband live in “a house most likely built over the bones of Civil War horses” in Athens, Ga., far from her native Brooklyn, and are raising their two Black Jewish boys in a time of rising antisemitism. From this experience of domestic joy and discord came 25 essays, the last published in 2021, around the one-year anniversary of the American Covid-19 lockdown. Along with an additional piece, they constitute “Happily,” and reveal both the serendipity and treachery of contemporary life.
The essays evoke the intimacy of direct address and confession. One of her sons wears his pajamas to a performance of “The Nutcracker,” where Mark overhears audience members comment disparagingly on his apparel. “I want to remind them that we’re all in a nightmare disguised as a dream,” she writes. “That we’re all fast asleep. That it’s way past our bedtime. But I say nothing instead.” She shows no such restraint on the page, where interpretations mount in swift succession.
Imagining a toxic former lover as a manipulative wizard, Mark meditates on young love, sorcery and the deception of the yellow brick road. “I would like to say that I wrote myself away from the wizard,” she writes. “I would like to say every word I wrote was another yellow brick I lifted up and left behind. But that’s not true. The road I walk is a spiral. And there’s a heap of bricks in the middle. I once looked out, and my sons were climbing it. This is a true story. Their knees were scraped and their cheeks were flushed. When they got to the top, they asked, ‘Will we learn a lesson?’” It’s reassuring to conclude that despite the many wrong turns ahead, one may finally land at one’s “happily ever after.” But is it necessary to first follow yellow brick roads that lead nowhere? Is there a lesson in getting lost?
Mark, too, repeatedly asks questions, a device that grows thin over time. But fairy tales are inherently repetitious, and her questions and circular language (“I mean to write about home, but I keep confusing it with hunger. I mean to write about hunger, but I keep confusing it with home”) echo their stylistic rhythms.
Considering the evil stepmothers who tormented Cinderella and Snow White, Mark also scrutinizes herself, both a stepdaughter and a stepmother. “The reason fairy tales last is that they allow us to gaze at ourselves through a glass that is at once transparent and reflective,” she writes. “They give us a double gaze to see ourselves from the inside out and the outside in, and they exaggerate our roles just enough to bring into focus the little pieces of monster that grow on our hearts.” We’re all complicit in someone else’s nightmare, and stories grant us the opportunity to empathize with those we’ve haunted.
“I save all their teeth, but I don’t save their tears,” she laments as her children grow. One day they believe in the tooth fairy; the next day they’re embarrassed to admit they ever did. But Mark finds that instead of distorting reality, fairy tales bring the absurdity of life into greater focus with grace, humor and gravity. Her essays reveal the lessons they teach us well into adulthood.
Lauren LeBlanc is an incoming board member of the National Book Critics Circle.
HAPPILY: A Personal History, With Fairy Tales | By Sabrina Orah Mark | 224 pp. | Random House | $27