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

Anna Spargo-Ryan’s illuminating memoir asks – and answers – psychological and philosophical questions about identity, storytelling and existence while engaging in the deeply subjective task of writing uniquely memory. Beginning with a self-aware perfectionism and the need to be seen as both good and bad, Spargo-Ryan invites readers into his 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 those stories.

Interspersed with touching family anecdotes, this insightful read highlights the absurdity of the situation with great comic effect, without inadvertently invalidating the seriousness of the subject. This book is funny in the same way that asking someone to travel hundreds of miles to speak at a conference on agoraphobia is funny. However, it is also vulnerable, authentic and contemplative, asking questions such as; Is the fear of abandonment ever justified? What is the relationship between caregiver neglect and self-confidence? How do the twists and turns of our lives impact our narrative identities?

The titles of the chapters alternate between aspects of mental health (narrative in the past) and months of the year (in the present) culminating in the inevitable meeting of deadlines. A chapter titled “The Process of Retaining Information Over Time” discusses 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 pattern of entanglement and her underdeveloped sense of self. Some chapters center around wanting your kids to be safe and happy, and trying not to look scary in the middle of a full-blown panic attack. Others evoke existential fear, pervasive agoraphobia and a thousand varieties of fear. “A Mood Disorder Associated With Childbirth” describes the medical light of women in labor and “Having the Qualities of a Mother” exposes the echoes of an ancestral curse repeated throughout the lives of girls now the author’s teenagers.

Ruminating on the ancestral origins of his mental illness, Spargo-Ryan discusses how disruption of continuity of memory results in disruption of continuity of identity, delving into his lived experience of mental illness with humor, sensitivity and clarity. Describing the complex in simple terms, she comments on the failure of Australia’s mental health system, while highlighting the gendered labeling of behaviors and the growing field of research around neurodiversity. It also addresses the dehumanizing stigma that accompanies 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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With exquisite honesty, A kind of magic is an unforgettable example of empowerment through the gradual restructuring of narrative identity. The author captures what it feels like to frantically grasp the threads of oneself, taking his readers on an optimistic journey of radical self-creation. This book will resonate with magical thinkers, armchair psychologists, and people whose timelines are unraveling.

A kind of magic by Anna Spargo-Ryan
Publisher: Ultimo Press
ISBN: 9781761150739
Format: Paperback
Pages: 352 pages
Release date: October 5, 2022
MSRP: $36.99

Angela C. Hale