Caragh Medlicott reviews Delicacy, a memoir by Welsh writer, comedian and actor Katy Wix. Written following the tragic and successive deaths of her best friend and mother and father, Delicacy offers a poignant, literary reflection on a collection of issues spanning grief, depression and body image.
CW: grief, body image, disordered eating.
As I type out some of the (many) quotes I’ve highlighted from Katy Wix’s Delicacy: A Memoir about Cake and Death I am struck again by the strength of emotion saturating this memoir. I doubt I am alone in feeling this way. The resonance of Delicacy has a universality to it, just as grief is universal – the difference, of course, lies in our own unique experience of it. For Wix, that experience has been intriguingly, and somewhat unusually, related to the omnipresence of cakes during tragic periods of her life; “cakes are weird, camp objects that seem to appear whenever something emotionally devastating is happening to me”. There is a particular type of wisdom – one earned by the hyper self-aware, the extraordinarily observant – that, laid plain on the page, has the power to move us by its simple truthfulness. It’s a quality evidently possessed by Wix and yet, far from a collection of aphorisms, Delicacy toes the line of novelty and novelistic in the way that all good memoirs do; at some points a linear story – and at others a series of vivid, flickering vignettes – its poignant memory of childhood and adolescence, of the formation of body image issues, of grief and familial relationships, are of the kind that send the reader’s own wheels of memory turning.
I’ve always been fascinated by the idea that when we recall a memory, we actually remember the last time we remembered it – in other words, as time goes on, we get further away from the reality of what happened. It offers a more scientific explanation for nostalgia, for the blurring of unflattering details, but it also accounts for a sense of transience in our personal stories – one that is captured in Delicacy’s opening as Wix writes, “this might be a memoir about growing up in Wales, or it might be twenty-one things that happened to me, but the important thing was to excavate the emotional truth of it and, by writing, maybe lay it to rest”. That idea of emotional honesty is an important one – perhaps we forget the specifics of past events, but the associated emotions don’t ever really dissipate. As they say, you never stop grieving a loved one, you simply learn to live with the grief – the wound heals over while the scar tissue remains. This quest for truth is felt throughout Delicacy, less in the exactness of its recounting and more in its emotional history – the understanding that our past feelings lay the foundation for the present and how, in relaying them, we might make them processable. Considering Wix’s background as an actor and a comic, it’s perhaps unsurprising that this processing took a creative format – what might be surprising to some, however, is the prowess of her writing; the clarity and flair imbuing her prose, as well as its cutting melancholy.
In Delicacy’s first story, Wix remembers being reluctantly coaxed into cycling while on a family holiday in France, aged eleven. Explaining her discomfort, Wix writes:
It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy the feeling of cycling – the freedom, the smells and sights of being outdoors – it was more that I felt unwilling to let myself be looked at whilst doing it, because I struggled to ride a bike, and I looked like someone who struggled to ride a bike, and I was so ashamed. The humiliation outweighed the joy.
It’s a feeling that’ll be familiar to anyone who was labelled sensitive or shy in childhood. The idea that, contrary to notions of child-like freedom and frivolity, by eleven years old Wix had already developed an acute sense of self-awareness, of her perception in the outside world, and the inhibiting perfectionism that so often accompanies that recognition. This incident culminates in Wix riding directly into traffic as a “punishment to all who had allowed the cycling to happen”. Yet, this is not the pivotal experience of this particular holiday. Instead, it is the one for which the chapter is named – ‘The First Cake’ – an event which is preceded by Wix’s statement that: “My mother’s hopes for me were that I would always be happy and thin. My hope for her was that she would never leave me.” In happening to stumble upon a delicious cake in a French cafe with her mother, Wix encounters a formative experience – one that ultimately permeates the entirety of Delicacy:
After one bite, like an alcoholic taking their first sip, I knew I was in trouble. As the sugar hit and my eyes closed in ecstasy, I realised I had found my thing. Here was a cheap, easy and legal way of getting high, any time I wanted, for the rest of my life. What a relief to have found the answer so early in life: I would never be alone again, now I had discovered the magical effect of sugar. You’re never really alone if you’re eating cake.
Like many women, I don’t know exactly at what point food changed for me – I can remember leaving food on my plate as a child, happy to stop eating when satiated (something that later became unfathomably complicated) – but in reading this passage I felt a deep and resounding recognition. For Wix, a disordered relationship with food would end up haunting her for many future years. It is – in many ways – an experience common to womanhood, the realisation that being a girl, being a woman, is hard; that after your body ceases – as Wix puts it – to be a “neutral zone”, there is an embarking upon a journey of push-and-pull, the denial of sustenance combined with the inevitable craving, and caving, to the numbing power of coveted food. As she reaches adolescence, and then young adulthood, Wix enters a toxic cycle of starvation and binging. When she finally achieves the goal of ‘thinness’ in her early twenties she is appalled to find that “being thin means nothing” – a revelation which means facing up to the perpetually undelivered societal promise that “someone would meet my outrageous needs if I could just memorise a few weight-loss tips”. Wix’s journey through disordered eating, body shaming and her eventual path to recovery – discovered partially through Susie Orbach’s Fat is a Feminist Issue – provides lived credence to Naomi Wolf’s assertion in The Beauty Myth that “a culture fixated on female thinness is not an obsession about female beauty, but an obsession about female obedience”.
Though each of the chapters of Delicacy feature a cake in its title, this – as its subtitle pre-warns – is not just a memoir about food and body issues. At the age of 26, Wix and her father were involved in a serious car accident – one that seemed to mark the start of a series of staggered and life-altering tragedies. Wix sustained serious injuries inflicted by the seat belt which saved her life, while her father’s cracked skull and head injuries set him on a painful path of slow, degenerative dementia. Still, the accident had a positive impact on their relationship which – having brushed up against the potential abruptness of death – blossomed into something more tender and communicative. Prior to the accident, Wix seemed to feel stumped and somewhat snubbed by the obscurity of her father’s past; “I began to wonder who he was […] there was so much I didn’t know”. Yet, after the accident, it is not just the communication of their father-daughter relationship which improves, but Wix’s own understanding of intimacy. As she describes it: “I used to think that intimacy was about saying everything that had ever happened to you to someone, and then they sort of had to care about you. It hadn’t occurred to me that relationships were about two people being vulnerable.”
It is after this, and the subsequent years of her father’s slow mental deterioration, that Wix is stricken not only by the “prison” of “anticipatory grief” but the sudden and unexpected death of her best friend “D”. This is a defining and terrible moment – it’s clear that D’s death hit Wix like a lightning bolt – yet it seems, somehow, that society is less understanding of prolonged grief when it is for a friend rather than a close family member. As Wix writes in a letter to D, “grief is so strange, D, you get asked on podcasts”. The fact this grief is followed by the loss of her father, and the crushing and unanticipated discovery of her mother’s inoperable brain tumour, is incomprehensibly tragic. And yet, there is something in Wix’s articulation of this grief that expresses the layering of pain, the heavy burden of its accumulation, without rendering it faceless – each loss is still, clearly and uniquely its own. It is the unaccountable fact of its arrival, almost all at once, which leads Wix to ponder:
I wonder if we are born with the ability to mourn or if it is something we must learn, and, if so, who teaches us? Perhaps mourning begins the moment a baby first realises that it is a separate being from its mother.
It’s a pertinent yet unsettling idea, that beginning life is a form of grief – our first separation – and one that might suggest our growing up is the slow continuation of that very severance, a gap widening until we are autonomous individuals (as Wix observes earlier on, “you don’t own yourself when you are a child”). It’s the sort of insight Wix stamps across every page of Delicacy; introspective, literary and tinged with sadness. It’s true that those familiar with Wix’s television work might have anticipated a very different book, one reflective of her quick humour and wit, but Delicacy is still darkly – and fabulously – funny. It is that very tension, between the surreal and the serious, that suffuses Delicacy in both its content and construction. This isn’t a coming-of-age story of the kind one might typically expect from a memoir, and in that way its non-uniform shape is more true to life. Wix writes that remembering is “just something that happens when it wants, like abdominal bloating or loud music from passing cars”. That sense of the sleeping memory and its multifaceted reawakening is captured in the variety of Wix’s styles; from a chapter listing over eighty fragmental reflections on cancer, to a deeply personal letter addressed to D after his passing, to a semi-fictionalised email exchange with a personal trainer – it is this diversity which encompasses the tonalities of true recollection.
It is hard to capture the fullness of Delicacy without falling back on the cheesy descriptors more commonly saved for movie posters (It’ll make you laugh! It’ll make you cry!) yet that word – fullness – may be the closest to doing it justice. Naturally, emotional breadth is part and parcel of the memoir form; yet what Wix has really mastered is a high wire act, a tightrope walk between honesty and artistry. It’s a talent which can allow both a saga about oatcakes and profound reflections on death to peacefully coexist at home in the same text. Orson Welles said that a happy ending is dependent on when you stop the story, and Wix, having returned to her mother’s favourite beach, decides to end it in the very midst of progression; in the tension between lessons learned and a longing for the past, in the acknowledgement of “the ordinariness of life” – one sometimes lived in the polarities of joy and grief, but more commonly experienced somewhere in the in-between.
“Leaving that diet culture is almost like leaving a cult — except the cult is mainstream.”
Delicacy by Katy Wix is available now from Headline Publishing Group.