Book review: A Kind of Magic, Anna Spargo-Ryan

A deeply engaging memoir about identity, mental illness, and the importance of constructing a narrative.

Anna Spargo-Ryan’s illuminative memoir asks – and answers – psychological and philosophical questions about identity, narrative, and existence while engaging in the deeply subjective task of writing purely from memory. Beginning with self-aware perfectionism and the need to be seen as both good-and-bad enough, Spargo-Ryan invites readers into her consciousness with evocative ease. A Kind of Magic explores how our narrative identities are shaped by the stories we tell about ourselves, and the value judgments we attach to these stories. 

Interspersed with touching familial anecdotes, this perceptive read highlights situational absurdity to great comedic effect, without inadvertently invalidating the seriousness of the subject matter. This book is funny in the same way as asking someone to travel hundreds of kilometres to speak at an agoraphobia conference is funny. However, it is also vulnerable, authentic, and contemplative, asking questions like; is the fear of abandonment ever justified? What is the relationship between caregiver neglect and self-belief? How do the plot twists of our lives impact our narrative identities? 

Chapter titles alternate between aspects of mental health (past tense narrative) and months of the year (present tense) culminating in the inevitable meeting of timelines. One chapter entitled ‘The process of retaining information over time’ is concerned with the fallibility of childhood memory, and the link between mental time travel and fear in the context of mental illness.

Another chapter, ‘May’, features an adult Spargo-Ryan, examining her enmeshment schema and underdeveloped sense of self. Some chapters centre around wanting one’s children to be safe and happy, and trying-not-to-look-scary in the midst of a full blown panic attack. Others touch upon existential dread, encroaching agoraphobia, and a thousand varieties of fear. ‘A mood disorder associated with childbirth’ outlines the medical gaslighting of women in labour and ‘Having the qualities of being a mother’ exposes the echoes of an ancestral curse repeated across the lives of the author’s now-teenaged daughters.

Ruminating on the ancestral origins of her mental illness, Spargo-Ryan speaks of how disruption to the continuity of memory results in disruption to the continuity of identity, delving into her lived experience of mental illness with humour, sensitivity, and clarity. Describing the complex in simple terms, she comments on the brokenness of Australia’s mental health system, while emphasising the gendered mislabelling of behaviours and the growing field of research surrounding neurodiversity. She also touches upon the dehumanising stigma that comes with certain diagnoses, and the contradictory importance/futility of applying labels to human beings.

Spargo-Ryan’s personal experience demonstrates both the power of developing an accurate mental health vocabulary and the pitfalls of asking uninformed medical professionals for help they don’t know how to give. 

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Exquisitely honest, A Kind of Magic is an unforgettable example of empowerment via the gradual restructuring of narrative identity. The author captures what it feels like to frantically grasp at the threads of oneself, taking her readers on an optimistic journey of radical self-creation. This book will resonate with magical thinkers, armchair psychologists, and people whose timelines unglue themselves.

A Kind of Magic by Anna Spargo-Ryan
Publisher: Ultimo Press
ISBN: 9781761150739
Format: Paperback
Pages: 352 pp
Release Date: 5 October 2022
RRP: $36.99

Nanci Nott is a nerdy creative with particular passions for philosophy and the arts. She has completed a BA in Philosophy, and postgraduate studies in digital and social media. Nanci is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing, and is working on a variety of projects ranging from novels to video games. Nanci loves reviewing books, exhibitions, and performances for ArtsHub, and is creative director at Defy Reality Entertainment.