A Kind of Magic

Dominic Villa SC

Melbourne writer Anna Spargo-Ryan’s latest work is fittingly entitled A Kind of Magic, because it really is a kind of magic.

It is described as 'a memoir about anxiety, our minds, and optimism in spite of it all', which in many respects undersells what lies between the covers. It begins with a trigger warning, advising the reader that the book discusses 'psychosis, anxiety, trauma, depression, suicide and therapeutic processes' (and, it must be said, much more besides).

It is not intended as a 'trauma dump'; rather, the author’s hope is to bring 'feelings of camaraderie, companionship and empathy'. If this is too much you are encouraged to 'close the book' and 'get under your comfiest blanket and stream episodes of a show you like.' However, what follows is such a beautifully and sensitively written exploration of memory, identity and mental illness that I would encourage everyone to get under the blanket and at least dip one’s toe into the first few chapters before deciding whether to read or stream.

The book is loosely structured.

Some chapters (identified by months of the year) describe present day experiences with a new therapist. These are interspersed with chapters (identified by a particular facet of mental illness) which combine anecdotes from the author’s past with commentary upon mental illness. The narrative is not chronological, nor does it claim to be entirely reliable, which only serves to emphasise the central themes of the book – the non-linear and fallible nature of memory.

The author’s lived experience with mental illness and her various interactions with family, employers, and the medical profession provide the narrative framework for an insightful philosophical and psychological discussion of identity, a critique of social attitudes towards mental illness, and in particular the inadequacy of the language we use to discuss, diagnose and describe mental illness. As the reader progresses through the book they are taken on a journey, the author’s journey, piecing together the relationship between memory (in all its fallibility), time and self-identity. It is those relationships that comprise an individual’s reality, yet that reality that becomes fractured with mental illness.

It is not all gloom, however, as the author describes the magic of piecing oneself back together. While this book examines serious issues, what makes it such a pleasurable read is that these discussions are expressed in accessible and non-academic language, as they are drawn from the author’s personal recollections. The accounts of the author’s panic attacks and dissociative episodes are particularly compelling; a combination of unorthodox grammar and syntax induce in the reader the very disordered and rapid thoughts being described. The writing moves seamlessly between witty, self-deprecating, frightening, and urgent.

It is difficult to put down, and impossible to forget BN

Dominic Villa SC