Readers Write

Essays, course work, articles, letters and other items by school and college students, written as part of their course work.

General Introduction:

Sometimes I'm shown work by students which is exemplary and I think that other people would find interesting, especially students who are required to write similar items for their school or college work. I've started this section in order to make such items available to a wider readership.

If you think you have an item suitable for inclusion, please don't send it to me without letting me know about it first.


HONEST DARING AND COMPLEX: An essay by María Paula González click here

MEETING AND RESCUE: An essay by Kate Smith click here

LOVE, LOSS and LONGING: An essay by Charlotte Wu click here

NOW I KNOW: A GCSE essay by Charlotte Richardson click here


HONEST DARING AND COMPLEX: An essay by María Paula González

Postcards from No Man's Land: Honest, daring and complex literature for young adults by María Paula González

María Paula González is a young teacher and student of literature. Her essay was submitted as part of a course on Children's and Young Adult Literature at Universidad de Filosofia y Letras. UNC. Mendoza, Argentina, where her tutor was Professor Guillermina Saravia.

Postcards from No Man's Land: Honest, daring and complex literature for young adults.

María Paula González

  This novel epitomizes the best of what contemporary young adult
literature is and can offer to its readers: outstanding literary value, complexity and honesty. Postcards from No Man's Land fearlessly and honestly addresses young adults' doubts, worries and contradictory feelings, and although it is principally aimed at this audience, it is meaningful to adult readers as well, since it deals with topics crucial to human existence, regardless their age.
  In it, I found what I like the most in literature, its subversive quality.
This text questions the established ideas and voices new possibilities, giving readers freedom to reconsider key aspects of their lives. Postcards, among other things, deals with love, truth, art and controversial topics such as assisted death and the search for a sexual identity. Young adult literature provides a space of freedom and intimacy in which readers can consider such aspects and find words for their most private questions and concerns.
  Postcards from No Man's Land is a complex, deep and thought-provoking
novel for readers who are not afraid to question their view of themselves and of the world. When discussing Postcards I cannot help talking about Aidan Chambers, since I feel he is one of those authors whose own voice is clearly heard in his texts, one of those writers you really feel you know through his books. And I definitely love his voice, as Jacob and as Chambers himself love Anne Frank's. I have loved him from the very first time I read his conception of literature(1) , which I know almost by heart as if it was a poem. The reason I like him so much is that he is not only a writer but a theorist of literature and reading. He is an avid reader of literature for whom reading is a vital experience. As this is, I think, one of the most important concerns in his life, all his writings, not only his theoretical ones but also his fiction, deal with this topic. Throughout the novel there are deep reflections about the importance of literature in readers' lives, mainly expressed through the voices of Geertrui and Jacob, as when Geertrui says "reading has been the one activity that has kept me going and given me the most and only lasting pleasure" (Chambers 256). It also shows how literature accompanies and assists characters in making sense of the most difficult trials they have to face. Geertrui reads Ben Jonson's poem by Jacob's grave and she will be read some of her favourite poems at the moment of her assisted death. As for Jacob, the words of Anne Frank's diary have accompanied and helped him understand himself better. Being an ardent reader myself, I love authors who reflect on the reading experience and who try to spell out the miracle that language performs on us.
  I think that Chambers' conception of literature and of reading could be
summed up in the saying that Alma gave Jacob: "Nothing ventured, nothing gained" (Chambers 66), since the reading of the kind of literature that Postcards is, one which "does not console, confirm and amuse, but rather tends to unsettle, revise and stimulate" (Chambers, "The Death of Populism"), upsets our certainties and identities. However, those readers who are courageous enough to let the text transform them will gain a broader view of humanity and of existence, as Alma says to Jacob: "Every time we learn an important lesson about life we suffer a sense of loss. (…) We gain. But there's a cost." (Chambers 300). This novel portrays deeply honest characters who are not afraid to show their inner selves, with their passions, contradictions and fears. The reason Daan gives for his love for Rembrandt could be perfectly applied to Chambers' literature: "That's one reason why I love Rembrandt. His truthfulness. Always honest. Loves people and loves them just as they are. Never afraid of life as it is" (Chambers 84).
  Apart from that, I love the way this author uses his writing as a place to
ponder on the essential aspects of life. He poses many questions, sometimes we find the answers, others we do not or we find completely different answers from different characters. But the important thing is that he makes his texts a space of reflection.
  The book tells the story of Jacob, which is set in the present time and the
story of Geertrui, set during World War II. We can see the process of maturation and self-discovery of both teenagers though in very different historical contexts.
  Geertrui is a Dutch girl, whose existence changed dramatically due to
the war, from a sheltered and innocent one to a life full of responsibilities, crucial decisions and important discoveries such as death, sexuality and love. Her memories of war are recalled vividly so that the reader can fully understand the horror of war and the spirit of war times. This is one of the most important contributions that historical fiction makes. Lee states that: "Historical fiction makes us feel what otherwise would be dead and lost to us. It transports us into the past. (…) (It) presents to us a truth of the past that is not the truth of the history books, but a bigger truth, (…) - a truth of the heart." (qtd. in Bucher and Manning 154). We can learn the facts and consequences of historical events in information books but we can only grasp their human significance when we get to know the life of the people who underwent those moments. Although Geertrui is surrounded by death and destruction she is able to find strength in herself, in her family and friends to go on living. This shows the enormous capacity that human beings have to face adversity. Geertrui says: "I discovered then how quickly you learn to cope with terrible things if you have no choice" (Chambers 25). The novel also shows that during war times there is not only death but friendship, laughter and love.
  Nevertheless, what I liked the most about Geertrui's story are her
reflections on memory, old age and death. While she writes her memories of war times for Jacob to know the truth about his grandfather, she is waiting for her death and for her there is nothing left but memory and pain:
  Here is memory. For me now there is only memory. Memory and pain. All life is memory. Pain is of now, forgotten as soon as gone. But memory lives. And grows. And changes too. Like the clouds I can see through my window. Bright and billowy sometimes. Blanketing the sky sometimes. Thin and long and high sometimes. Low and grey and brooding sometimes. And sometimes not there at all, only the cloudless blue, so peaceful, so endless. So longed for. But let us not talk about death. Only of clouds. Always the same and never the same. Uncertain. Unreliable, therefore. Unpredictable. (Chambers 106).
I love this passage. It is my favourite one in the entire book. It is so deeply evocative. It shows how our perception of life changes depending on our present mood. It talks of pain, but also of beauty and of rest. It is sad and poetic as most of the passages in which the old Geertrui appears. I'm most grateful to Chambers for including this image of the end of life in the book, since it is a topic so seldom addressed, so rarely put into words and yet so crucial in every human's life. You can only go by yourself through the experience of death and pain. And it is precisely when we are isolated and hopeless when words like these can be our only and last comfort. Words that are said to us or words that come to our mind.
  Jacob's story is set in the present time. He is a seventeen-year- old
English boy who is in Amsterdam visiting the old Geertrui, who nursed his grandfather during the allied invasion to liberate the Netherlands in the Second World War. Far away from his family and country and confronted by a different world, Jacob will undergo experiences that will modify his view of himself and of life. As Jacob says: "it was only now, (…) in a back street of a strange city in a foreign country, a long way from anywhere he had ever called home, that the actuality of being independent, of being responsible for himself, informed his inflamed nerves and inhabited his disturbed mind" (Chambers 121). Mainly he discovers that being an adult involves loneliness. Jacob thinks "Alone, alone, all all alone. (…) Is that what being grown up, being adult, means? Solitude?" (Chambers 121). He must leave Amsterdam with the dilemma of whether to tell his grandmother or not what he has discovered about his grandfather and nobody can decide for himself.
  In Postcards we can see a permanent shift between present and past time.
Another of the aims of historical fiction is that by showing us the past we are able to see the present time more clearly. Katherine Paterson explains that when authors write about the past they are in fact "shedding light on the present time" (qtd in Bucher and Manning 157) and Johnson and Giorgis emphasize this idea: "History becomes a pair of spectacles to focus our vision on the chaotic present" (qtd in Bucher and Manning 157).
  The contrast between war past times and a complex and confusing
present is depicted in the novel. Jacob recites a passage from Anne Frank's diary which says: "It's twice as hard for us young ones to hold our ground, and maintain our opinions in a time when all ideas are being shattered and destroyed, when people are showing their worst side, and do not know whether to believe in truth and right and God" (Chambers 41). We can see, as Jacob does, that although Anne wrote that during terrible times, what she said could be applied to our present time as well. Jacob says; "I know it isn't so awful now. But surely in some ways it isn't any better, is it? I mean Bosnia, parts of Africa, Cambodia, other places, nuclear pollution, drugs, AIDS, the kids on the street" (Chambers 41). And Jacob adds, thoughtfully reflecting on one of the key features of present times, the lack of ideals: "But what ideals are there to believe in? and who knows what the truth is anymore?" (Chambers 41). Postcards vividly conveys the feeling of uncertainty and relativity that beset our time, but at the same time it makes a point on this topic. Although there are no longer universally accepted truths, the important thing is the courage to look for and accept one's truth and one's reality, regardless how painful it might be. Postcards shows how difficult this position is for most people most of the time. As Geertrui quotes from some poet [T.S.Eliot]: "Human kind can not bear very much reality," but also as Jacob says, " I have always believed it is best to know the truth, though it may be hard and hurts" (Chambers 260).
  All in all, after finishing this novel, one gets the feeling about the
complexity of life. As the critic Hazel Rochman states, the reader gets "no neat answers, just a sense of the rich and painful confusion of what it means to be human".
  To conclude I enjoyed this novel enormously and I think it represents
the best of what is being written in English for young adults nowadays. It gives readers the best that great literature can offer: an honest portrayal of human experience.

(1)Chambers claims "I believe literature belongs to all the people all the time, that it ought to be cheaply and easily available, (…) fun to read as well as challenging, subversive, refreshing and comforting, (…). Finally, I hold that in literature we find the best expression of the human imagination, and the most useful means by which we come to grips with our ideas about ourselves and what we are." ( qtd. in Hunt 3)

Works Cited

Bucher, Katherine and M. Lee Manning. Young Adult Literature. Exploration, Evaluation and Appreciation. New Jersey: Pearson. 2006. Print.

Chambers, Aidan. "The Death of Populism". Web. 3 Dec. 2011.

Chambers, Aidan. Postcards from No Man's Land. London: The Bodley Head. 1999. Print.

Hunt, Peter. Understanding Children's Literature. London: Penguin.1999. Print.

© copyright María Paula González, 2012.

MEETING AND RESCUE: An essay by Kate Smith

Meeting and Rescue in the novels of Aidan Chambers

Kate Smith

In Aidan Chambers' six novels, 'The Dance Sequence', the motifs of meeting and rescue are revisited in many different ways, and are explored for each protagonist. Typically, a key character is introduced - to the central character and the reader - for example, Izumi to Cordelia in This Is All, Adam to Jan in The Toll Bridge and Barry to Hal in Dance on my Grave. The first meetings occur in the early stages of the novels, mark turning points for the central characters, and map the coming events and the characters' relationships.

First meetings

The first meeting between Cordelia and Izumi reveals a great deal about the relationship that they share - both the nature of their friendship and of their characters as individuals. It occurs, Cordelia explains, 'one sunny autumn day'. Autumn is often seen as the season where something begins to fade. Is it dramatic irony that in the beginning of a close bond of friendship the scene already seems to indicate its end? This is reinforced by the poem Izumi recites, in which Winter is implied and unspoken, just as the setting in which her relationship with Cordelia is forged leaves their parting implied.

The poem Cordelia had been reciting to herself just before she meets Izumi prefigures her own life and her friendship with Izumi: 'But you are lovely leaves, where we / May read how soon things have / Their end, though ne'er so brave: / And after they have shown their pride, / Like you a while: they glide / Into the grave'. After Cordelia has shown her 'pride'- i.e. her beauty, her poetry, her life through her compilation of her book for her daughter - she 'glides Into the grave', when she dies in 'Book Six'. Cordelia's friendship with Izumi is also like this; it shows 'their pride', their bond of closeness, and then 'glides Into the grave' with Izumi's departure and later, Cordelia's death. The poem Izumi recites foreshadows her own departure both in the phrase 'What might I leave you / as a last gift when my time comes?' and also in the implied changing seasons. Spring, Summer and Autumn are all mentioned in the verse Izumi recites, yet Winter (death) is left implied. There is dramatic irony in the first words Izumi says to Cordelia, a poem that speaks of the 'ending' of their friendship, before it has even begun.

The use of the poem 'To Blossoms' by Robert Herrick adds another text to the significance and meaning of the meeting, and is an early example of the intertextual nature of This Is All. To cite one more example, in 'Book Four' Cordelia quotes Hal Robinson's reflection 'The only important thing is that somehow we all escape our history'. Hal is the protagonist of Dance on my Grave. When Cordelia quotes him, the reader sees a 'reflection' or 'mirror' of the two novels. Links and connections are forged between the two that bring more to each story from the other. The link is maintained in The Toll Bridge where Tess jokes that 'No one can ever escape all her-history', teasing that her remark is a 'Jan [the protagonist]-type joke'. The three echo each other, allowing the reader's understanding of each novel to grow.

In Dance on my Grave the first meeting between the protagonist, Hal, and Barry also plays an essential role in establishing their relationship and suggesting the events to come. The meeting occurs when Hal capsizes and is rescued by Barry in his boat 'Calypso'. In Greek mythology Calypso was a sea nymph who delayed and toyed with Odysseus for seven years on her island, Ogygia. In the same way, Barry 'delays' Hal and 'toys' with him for seven weeks. His boat is described as a 'yellow slicker'. Yellow is the complimentary opposite of blue. Blue is the colour of inner spiritual essence. Yellow is the opposite - sensuality, the body, the five senses. The boat itself signifies and announces what is to come, the nature of the relationship between the two characters and its length. The first time Hal meets Barry is in the seventh section, titled '7', of 'Part One'. Barry's death is told in the seventh section, titled '7', of 'Part Four'. Their relationship lasts for seven weeks. Seven is a 'mystical' number, and brings continuity to the novel. The reader can find traces of relationships, character, plot and deeper meanings, all in the description of Hal and Barry's first meeting.

The first meeting of Jan and Adam in The Toll Bridge establishes the theme of pretence, which is a constant feature in the mystery of who Adam truly is. During their first meeting Jan states 'I act spooked' and that Adam 'acts the ghost'. Throughout their relationship, Jan is convinced there is an 'other' Adam, of whom at times he catches a glimpse. Added to this are Jan's comments throughout the novel about his own charade of pretence, and that of others. For example, he hates other peoples' 'pretended individuality'. In his first meeting with Jan Adam does not give his name voluntarily. Never during this meeting does he state 'My name is…' In retrospect it is clear this is part of the 'Fugue State' and is Aston discovering (or creating?) his alternative personality. However, his answer 'Right first time' to Jan's exclamations of not knowing him 'from Adam' creates uncertainty for the reader. A person with no name is deprived of his identity. The reader can thus surmise that: (a) Adam voluntarily or involuntarily is deprived of his own name and thus his identity, and (b) 'Adam' is given no name in order to increase the question of his reality. Is he a 'real' character?

In the same way, many of the events in The Toll Bridge are questionable. Do they actually occur literally? Or are they 'psychic dramas', events that are almost 'dream like', such as those in A Midsummer Night's Dream? It could be argued that instead of a literal interpretation, Jan is not the central character, that he and all the characters in the novel are splits of one key character. Thus the true protagonist is above and beyond the novel itself. The confusion of who Adam really is certainly adds weight to these ideas. Near the end of the novel Jan himself says 'It's as if [Adam] were me. No, not me. I mean - the other me....' Adam's refusal to give his name can be seen as another 'thread' in this puzzle.

An overriding question that can be found in all Chambers' fiction is the question of what is 'truth' and what is not. The Toll Bridge, as I've suggested, is profoundly ambiguous. Who are the characters and what truly happens between them? Do these events occur, or not? Breaktime also raises this question, perhaps more overtly then the other novels. For example, are Ditto's writings 'truth'? In the 'universe' of these novels the literal and the figurative exist together to create events, characters and meaning. The reader who searches for what is 'truth' and what is allegoric or symbolic is attempting to separate the inseparable. Without the literal the novels cannot exist in the physical sense and without the figurative the novels cannot exist in the abstract. They are intertwined in every novel of the 'Dance Sequence'.


The part names play in the novels is revealing during the first meetings between protagonists and other key characters. In This Is All the protagonist is called Cordelia Kenn. Cordelia is the name of the daughter who would not lie to her father in Shakespeare's King Lear. Her second name 'Kenn' can be associated with the old High German word 'kennen', meaning: 'to make known', and to the northern English use of 'ken', as in 'Do you ken [know] John Peel?'. Both honesty and the search for knowledge are clearly essential in Cordelia's life, and both are present in the meeting between Cordelia and Izumi. For example, Cordelia's honesty about poetry when she writes to Izumi 'I like poetry'. Perhaps this seems trivial and unimportant to some readers, but for Cordelia this is a declaration which is special and honest. Her desire for knowledge can again be seen in her desire to know and befriend Izumi and to explore their friendship with one another.

In Dance on my Grave, the second novel of the six, Hal's name is also revealing, both for the whole of the novel and for the first meeting with Barry. Hal, we can speculate, is named after Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry IV Part One and Henry IV Part Two. Early on we learn that Hal's real name is Henry. Prince Hal's story, some critics say, is one of growth, of growing up from the youthful trouble maker to the distinguished, 'responsible' Henry V. The coming of age or growing up of the protagonist in Dance on my Grave is indicated by this connection. The first meeting of Hal and Barry can be seen as the start of a new life, as Hal is 'flung overboard' into the water and given a 'baptism' into a new life, in which he will grow up and become himself, or will at least come to realise a fundamental element of his own being.

Jan, the protagonist of The Toll Bridge, also has creative power in his name, which is explained by another character, Tess. She tells Jan about Janus, the pre-Roman God, explaining that he is the God of bridges and that he has two faces. She remarks that this name is suited to Jan because he 'keep[s] the bridge' and also because he is 'two-faced'. In their first meeting, when Adam breaks into Jan's house, this 'two faced' nature emerges, and from his scrutinising post-analysis of the scene, we discover that Jan is aware of the double-act he puts on. He writes that in the opening moments of his meeting with Adam they are both pretending, being someone who they are not; Jan explaining that '[Adam] acts the ghost and I act spooked, each of us acting in self-defence, each having taken the other by surprise.' But not only this: he is also aware of others around him who 'act' or who are 'two-faced'. This use of acting, of pretence, as protection continues throughout the novel until the end, which triggers Jan fully to take responsibility for Adam - and for himself.


The first meeting between Hal and Barry in Dance on my Grave demonstrates a typical motif in Chambers' fiction, the motif of 'rescue'. Barry rescues Hal from the sea literally, but he also 'rescues' Hal's sexuality from his deepest consciousness and brings it to the 'surface'.

In This Is All, Cordelia 'rescues' Izumi from her isolation and loneliness at their first meeting. Yet it is Izumi who brings to consciousness Cordelia's wish to be a poet, which is reported before the meeting but occurs chronologically afterwards. Izumi asks 'You'll have children, won't you?' in response to Cordelia's pondering over what will be left of her when she dies. This question brings to the surface, or 'rescues' from Cordelia's deepest consciousness, her desire to be a poet. Whereas in Dance on my Grave it is Barry who rescues Hal literally in the first meeting and also brings to Hal's consciousness an element of his 'inner being', in This Is All it is Cordelia who rescues Izumi but Izumi who brings to consciousness the element of Cordelia's 'inner being'.

In The Toll Bridge Jan has 'run away' from his usual life and is living in a little 'eight sided house' by the bridge. Adam not only literally breaks into Jan's house, but also 'breaks into' Jan's inner consciousness, and forces him to face his other 'selves'. Adam 'breaking into' Jan's house forces Jan to take responsibility for Adam as a person literally, and also represents Jan being forced to take responsibility for his other selves that he has not yet faced. So while Jan rescues Adam by providing him with a place to stay, and eventually by providing him with friendship, Adam 'rescues' Jan, by forcing him to face another side of himself and to take responsibility for this.

The Spectrum

One way to look at the contrast between the motif of meeting and rescue in these three novels is to view them in the context of the six novels in 'The Dance Sequence'. Considered in order of their publication, the novels read from first to last can be viewed as a spectrum. The first and second novels, Breaktime and Dance on my Grave, are more masculine and more physical than the other novels. Consider, to mention only one instance among many, the physical nature of Ditto's first sexual encounter and the sensual nature of Barry and Hal's relationship.

In the third and fourth novels, Now I Know and The Toll Bridge, we see the shift towards a more 'feminine' story even though the protagonists both male. Both of these novels include a female voice along with the male: Julie's taped letters in Now I Know and Tess's interjections in The Toll Bridge, part of which she writes. These are the transitional novels, retaining many elements of physicality found in the first two novels yet exploring more abstract subjects; for example, spirituality in Now I Know and the question of the 'self' and of Platonic love in The Toll Bridge. The last two novels in the sequence, Postcards From No Man's Land and This Is All, complete the shift from the 'masculine' to the 'feminine'.

Postcards From No Man's Land is different from its four predecessors in that the story of the male protagonist, Jacob Todd, is told entirely in the third person, while the parallel story of a central female character, Geertrui, is told in first person. Postcards is the only novel in the sequence with a male protagonist told from the third person perspective in its entirety. This has the effect of 'dislocating' the 'masculine' voice and causing the reader to view the protagonist from above and beyond rather then being with him. This ensures that the feminine voice is heard above the masculine.

This Is All clearly shows the shift of the spectrum has been completed, not only by the fact that the protagonist, Cordelia, is female, but also because the story is multi-layered, going in many directions, and dealing with many themes, ideas and contemplations, as simultaneously as it is possible to achieve in a novel. Whereas Breaktime is sequential, This Is All varies chronologically and there are pauses in the plot, where 'pillow book passages' serve to change the direction of the story. This Is All also includes every aspect of the spectrum. The physical and sensual can be found, for example, in Cordelia's record of her first sexual experience with Will. The more abstract subjects of the 'transitional' novels are included, as, for example, in Cordelia's exploration of spirituality with her teacher Julie Martin, which features strongly throughout the novel. Platonic love has a place in This Is All, as it does in The Toll Bridge. The boundaries of Platonic love and which actions and feelings we attribute to it are explored in, for example, Cordelia kissing Arry in 'Book Four' and Cordelia's friendship with Izumi, which is sometimes interpreted as a lesbian relationship due to its physical nature. The question of what 'type' of love their relationship falls into is raised - as is the question whether or not you can or should classify love in restrictive categories.

From the physical Ditto and Hal, to the abstract Nik and Jan, ending with Jacob and Cordelia who encompass all aspects, there is a continuing motif of meeting and rescue intricately woven in the spectrum of the 'Dance Sequence'. And as the sequence becomes more feminine, being able to distinguish who is being rescued and who is the rescuer at the first meeting becomes, like the novels themselves, more and more ambiguous.

© copyright Kate Smith 2006.

LOVE, LOSS and LONGING: An essay by Charlotte Wu

Love, Loss and Longing in Aidan Chambers' novel This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn

Charlotte Wu

This Is All is made up of six different 'books', each different in structure yet linked together by the same plot. This could be compared to the other five novels in 'The Dance Sequence', in which This Is All is the final instalment. Each of the novels in the sequence explores a different form of writing, and are linked, not by the same characters, places or events, but 'thematically around the question, "What does love really mean?", and by 'the discovery of your own desire to be what you wish to be' .(1)

'Book One' of This Is All sets the tone for the following 'books', and introduces the protagonist Cordelia, her preoccupations and personality. She is individualistic and highly conscious of herself and her thought processes. Named after the character whom Chambers describes as 'the great lost daughter in literature', Cordelia of Shakespeare's King Lear, who is unyieldingly honest, Chambers' Cordelia correspondingly tries to explore and discover the truth about love.

Some principal themes of the novel are truth, love, and the exploration of self. Cordelia is constantly trying to understand herself, wanting to 'be aware of every smallest thing that happens to me'. This self-consciousness is linked with her honesty and aspiration to truly understand love, which she describes as 'the most important thing in life'. However, a theme that is connected with this, and perhaps just as important, is loss.

This Is All explores several different types of loss. Cordelia experiences the death of her mother, the loss of her first love, loss of friends, loss of parents, and even of self. Finally the novel concludes with Cordelia's death, which reveals the effect of her loss on her family and friends. Examining the losses that Cordelia suffers throughout the novel helps to further our understanding of her character.

In 'Book One', we discover that Cordelia loves poetry, writing to her boyfriend, Will, that her 'creed' and 'god' 'is language…and there is no other god but this'. Near the beginning of the book, Cordelia confides that her first poem was written following a conversation with her best friend Izumi at the age of fifteen, when she thought, 'This girl, this me, will be old one day, and will die. What will be left of her then?' Though not a concern unique to Cordelia, it certainly reflects the way in which she thinks more deeply perhaps than others of her age; for example, Izumi herself, who claims she will be content to live on in her children. This wouldn't be enough for Cordelia, revealing how anxious she is about herself being lost to time. But by putting down her thoughts in writing, she is able to leave something behind of 'myself alone'. After the incident at the White Horse of Uffington, where she accompanies her father to scatter her mother's ashes, she links her need to leave a legacy in writing with her previous losses, speaking of how 'Words never die…people die. Mothers die.' She has unresolved feelings of loss, especially her 'fear of losing a loved one', which affect her relationships throughout the novel. The comment is also poignant when the reader later finds out that Cordelia herself dies, leaving her daughter motherless, but with the pillow book as a record of her life and being.

Her ingrained fear of self-loss stems from her desire to know herself deeply. Because she is more than usually aware of her thoughts and actions, she is consequently more sensitive to any changes in her behaviour and her self which suggest to her that she is losing her innocence or her grip on life. When Will reveals a secret to her, her worry that she will have to disclose a secret of her own seems to override her interest in what he has to say. We would expect most teenagers to be intrigued by the promise of such a disclosure but Cordelia is too tightly wrapped up in herself to feel this. Instead, she worries that offering 'a similar gift in return…means giving your self away. And what's more frightening than that?'

After Cordelia loses her virginity, she feels confused about her feelings, knowing 'that I'd lost something'. However, her teacher and friend Ms Martin has already given her the advice '"Every time we learn something, we suffer a sense of loss."' This epitomises the quality of the journey that Cordelia undergoes; throughout the novel, the more she learns about herself and love, the more she feels a sense of loss.

Later in the novel, she contemplates how, 'with Will I lost my sexual virginity. With Edward I lost my emotional virginity. I feel nostalgic for when…I cared about everything'. These conflicting feelings are what make Cordelia such a complex and interesting character, who is certainly far from the stereotypical teenager.

The theme of loss develops as the novel continues. 'Book Two' opens with her father and Doris announcing their engagement. Cordelia responds angrily, 'I'm going to lose everything…my dad won't be my dad any more…you won't be my aunt any more…and the house where I was born won't be mine any more'. The early loss of her mother means that her perceived loss of the stability that she had experienced in her childhood intensely distresses her, bringing her to a point where she concludes 'I just feel afraid - of being grown up - and, I mean, of losing everything - not being a child any more - losing everyone I love - everything I love'. The dashes that break up this speech convey her jumbled thoughts and feeling of confusion and disorientation. She feels uprooted and anxious that 'nothing seems safe any more - secure, I mean'. In correcting herself from 'safe' to 'secure', the reader understands the pressure she is under while she is experiencing this rite of passage. Her father and Doris are still her parents, but she now feels excluded and isolated. We get the impression that she now feels less able to approach them and as a result (which is also useful for purposes of the plot) she turns to Ms Martin, whose approach to her pupil helps her to become more independent. In this confused state, she makes some unwise decisions, but these, though taking her in the wrong direction, become part of her self-discovery.

When Mrs Blacklin tries to separate Cordelia and Will, Cordelia answers her with a lie, and moreover she tells us 'I meant to lie. I intended to lie. At that moment I was a liar. And I didn't like myself for it.' Cordelia is usually completely honest, yet when the fear of loss emerges, she suddenly becomes vulnerable and compromises her integrity. She realises that when Will goes to college, even if they stayed together, 'He would be changed by his time away…everything that mattered to me was changing at the same time. Nothing would ever be quite the same again'.

At the time that she writes these words, Cordelia is unable to comprehend why the combined changes of losing her childhood home and also her first love affect her so deeply. But in retrospect she realises that 'Losing my mother when I was so young…has left me with an ingrained fear of loss - of losing those who matter most to me'.

When she moves out of her family home she feels that she no longer 'belonged'. This feeling of displacement contributes to her sense of loss because she now has no real refuge at home, no place in which to contemplate herself and resolve her feelings. Instead, she feels as if she does not fit into her father and Doris's new life and resents them for this, which in turn leads to alienation from herself, because all the relationships which are crucial to her are in a state of transition. In retrospect she writes, 'For a while I even felt I had lost myself', using the imagery of a 'storm…caught up in it and tossed about by it' to represent the emotional turmoil and upheaval that she is experiencing.

It is at this point that the reader is able to grasp fully the connection between love, the main theme of the book, and loss. Indeed, Cordelia spells it out for us in her statement, 'the measure of love is loss'. Her best friend Izumi also leaves at this time and she realises, 'To have that familiar being taken from us is to suffer the worst pain of life'. This could be interpreted to mean that it is difficult to appreciate how much you love or are loved until it is taken away, and in the rest of the novel, Cordelia focuses on a theme related to loss: longing for what she has lost.

As well as the loss of people, Cordelia is also dispossessed of some of her previous innocence and optimism. She tells Edward, the man who becomes her lover in 'Book Three', '"I don't believe in falling in love. Not after Will"'. Edward discerningly teases her about this 'cynicism', which is probably only the result of spending time with a man who is so much older than her. Conversely, Will is still naïve, and on his return is so disgusted by Cordelia's affair that he ends their relationship, leaving her now truly alone. Although nearly two years older, Will is less worldly than Cordelia, which gives their relationship some interesting dimensions. However, both characters become more mature as the novel progresses, so This Is All could be considered a bildungsroman.

Cordelia now turns to Ms Martin for condolence and she enlightens her, 'Having lost Will you feel you've lost yourself'. In a protagonist who wishes to be constantly aware of herself, the reader knows that this loss of self is a greater bereavement than heartbreak. In a passage titled 'Changes' Cordelia recognises that she appears to herself to have left her old self behind completely, writing 'I used to be flippant and funny. I'm not now. I think I've become too serious'. This passage also reveals her sense of alienation from others, including her father and Doris to whom she doesn't 'feel part of the way I used to' and her friends, with whom, 'I have lost the openness I used to have'.

In examining the longing that stems from her losses, Cordelia identifies 'Two threads to my constant longing…a longing to love and a longing to understand'. As well as missing Will and being loved, she realises that she has also to understand what is happening to her, which she perhaps lost sight of a little with Edward. Now she knows that it was 'losing Will that made me perceive this truth about myself most clearly'. Therefore Ms Martin is right, for while with Will, Cordelia is able to be herself, when she loses him and is with Edward, she consciously behaves differently, for example, 'copying his style as you do when you want to please'.

In the final stages of the novel, Cordelia regains Will and her self but is lost to others as she dies. But this serves to illustrate to the reader the extent of the effect of this loss upon the other characters. Will's father tells him how she prevented Will from becoming like his mother as she 'got hold of you…and gave you some of the qualities that made her such a lovely person', and Will responds, 'I'll never love anyone else like I love her.' Cordelia also does not give much prominence to her friends in the book, as it is primarily a story about Will and love, and the memorial service demonstrates in the 'number who were there, the depth of feeling' that other people felt for her. Therefore, although the novel ends with Cordelia's daughter, for whom the pillow book is written, it is clear that her teenage worry that she would be lost to time and live on only through children is not borne out, because her traces remain not only in writing as she had hoped, but also in the people whose lives she touched.

(1) Geoff Fox, Authorgraph no.130, 2001

© 2006 Charlotte Wu


NOW I KNOW: A GCSE essay by Charlotte Richardson

"Tom sets out to investigate the bizarre case of a body found hanging from a crane in a scrap yard - a body which disappears. Nik is researching for a film about a contemporary life of Jesus when he meets Julie, and they embark on a love affair, which will involve a spiritual experience that will change them both for good. Tom and Nik's investigations bring them together in an unexpected climax to a powerful and thought-provoking book."

This blurb on the back of Now I Know by Aidan Chambers convinced me to read the book after my English teacher had suggested it as our GCSE novel. I was intrigued by the idea of exploring the details of two quite peculiar characters, and reading about a topic I wouldn't usually find interesting. The idea of belief has many sides-not only the belief in God or Jesus, but the belief in yourself and your loved ones.  Now I Know is the third book in a series of six, which are curiously named "The Dance Sequence" by Aidan himself. The sixth book has not been completed, however, and from my email contact with Mr Chambers I know that it is being written with confidence and continuity. "There are two kinds of writing - the kind you do as a job, writing that is the tool of your trade. The other is writing you do for its own sake. I am a writer who writes for the sake of it," Mr Chambers wrote to me, and this is how I would like to think of writing.                                                                                   

I must admit that I thought the book may be aimed at converting me to strict Christianity, but I couldn't have been further from the truth. As I found out after reading the extraordinary first page, with its fabulous description of a young boy's realisation of death - a subject which everyone knows is around but no one wants to embrace. The beginning wasn't the only good part in the book. Every turn of the page was like advancing into this world of Doubt versus Belief, Love versus Friendship.                                                                 

The theme of the book I most wish to discuss is the exploration of what faith really is while looking through the eyes of two young and ultimately naive learners. It dwells on the dramatic clash between belief and rational, logical thoughts, while tackling other well-known teenage urges in the midst of this manic effort to understand how our world works. Mr Chambers' unique style of writing brings out the truth through the use of his previous knowledge, through other people's opinions through quotations, and through the use of an ordinary teenager's view of life. I haven't read many teenage novels as I find some of them tedious and not worth reading. But this novel captured the essence of true, good quality writing, while still effectively tackling the topic of faith in a mature and understanding manner. Aidan's book contains no evangelism. He simply portrays his ideas in a unique way and allows the reader to delve deeper if they so desire.                                                                               

This topic of faith is relevant to me because I have never been sure which opinion to follow: Is there a God? Did Jesus exist? Or should I believe the logical and yet still interesting theory of Evolution involving the Big Bang? The book has helped me to understand that it's not what everyone else believes, but what you believe that counts.

I have decided to present my discussion under three headings: 'Nik's ideas before', 'The research' and 'The decision'.

Nik's ideas

Nik, we are told, has very strict ideas about faith - rather like myself at the moment - and thinks in a very realistic manner. I believe this first depiction of Nik is very important in the latter parts of the book to help us experience the emotions with him as he researches this difficult subject. "I'm not bothered about religion and I don't believe in God", is Nik's first reaction to being asked to do research about Jesus Christ. "God has never been around at all. He is an invention. In the past people needed some all-powerful being to explain things they couldn't understand and to calm their fears. But it's no good anymore. God is dead. If he ever was alive, that is." This passage from near the beginning summarizes how Nik thinks and what his views are.   Through Nik's investigations Aidan Chambers has thoroughly yet simply in his own way explored what many have left untouched. Although Nik's character is predominantly against the idea of faith and God, etc., we then come across someone who is, I believe, the ultimate believer. Julie believes because she wants to, not because she has to or needs to.                                                         

The contrast in characters and opinions is effective in creating a conflict and a debate inside the book. We have already seen Nik's first reaction, but I think that as soon as he meets Julie (which is quite early on in the book) his attitude changes, and this is where the exploration takes place.


Nik tries a number of different ways to analyse the life of a Christian. His relationship with Julie is one way, but his thoughts are somewhat cloudy because of his fascination with her not only as a Christian but also as a person. So, to enhance his experiences as a novice believer, he talks to the Vicar of St James. I don't think this really helps Nik in any way, because a vicar would probably be a stern believer in God and might want to change Nik and convert him. In the book, however, Nik does find some enlightenment in what the Vicar says and so makes the decision, which will ultimately lead to a decision on faith one way or another.                                         

I was surprised when Nik decided to join a monastery for a period of time, so as to experience a life dedicated to God. Aidan Chambers used his own experiences as a monk in the 1960's. This helped him to write a wonderful account of a peaceful life, dedicated to God and with no cares or rivalry. These pages reveal a glimpse of a real life no other author I know of has described with such vigour and so truthfully. We see Nik's view of this unique life but we can also decide for ourselves whether this life would be fun, attractive and peaceful or just a waste of time.                                                             

I think that this may be one of the most effective explorations of faith in the book. "They think of themselves as representing Christ in ordinary life." It is also one of the most confusing parts, not only for Nik but also for the reader who is trying to decide what Faith means to them. "What's a good atheist?" A question on Nik's mind to which the answer comes in a riddle from a monk, quoting Graham Greene: "The same as a good Christian - one who doubts. The believer will fight another believer over a shade of difference. The doubter fights only himself."                                                                        

Nik becomes thoroughly interested in the aspects of Silence. He is able to collect his thoughts and think of what is to come - this is very rare in our modern society. I believe it is a missing part of our lives and to read about it when described by an experienced novelist made an original and compelling few pages.                             

Faith is approached in such a way that I believe no other book can compare with Now I Know. When Nik decided to crucify himself I was utterly shocked! Through the entire book Nik had been reserved in his thoughts yet allowing fragments of new possibilities to enter his now confused and unsure mind. Suddenly he changes. He is still determined but in a very different way to the determination he showed before. This change in attitude is an exciting twist to an already deep and very moving story. I am still unsure whether Nik decided to crucify himself because it was his last option (albeit an extreme one) or whether he wanted to experience the rush of adrenalin and feel what a supposed "miracle man" felt as he died.


"All humanity is in me." After the actual crucifixion I believe Nik has come to some sort of conclusion. I don't believe that, although it is the end of the book, it is the end of the ideas, and perhaps the end to a chapter. "My life is my specimen, my body is my laboratory. Last week the cross was my test-tube." This horrific way of looking at the wonderful gift of life is quite logical, but shows Nik hasn't been changed by his extremely atypical experiments, and still writes, if not thinks, in a reasoned way. But the actual crucifixion does undoubtedly bring conclusions to his mind. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? It took six hours before Jesus Christ was broken enough to ask that. It took less than six minutes before I knew why he asked it and exactly what he meant."

In the last few pages Julie and Nik use stichomythia in two lines to produce powerful, thought- provoking ideas with only a few words: "Julie: It is the hidden that I look for. Nik: Now for the life of the eyes?"

Nik's conclusions about God are as follows:                                  

1. He would be a woman.                                                         

2. You wouldn't recognise Her because She is not one but all.    

These two conclusions are logical yet full of faith. Although comical, it captures the essence of faith without the reader knowing it. That is, until you really analyse the situation that Nik has put you in.

The idea of God, Jesus or faith as being "all" is generally considered to be a religious idea, but I believe it holds the key to life. Everything is not one, but all, because everything is connected in some way, whether it be spiritually, physically or mentally. By making this statement the author has opened a doorway into a place where a deeper meaning could be found if you had all the time in eternity.

The End

The "ending" to the book, Nik's little notebook to Julie, is the perfect way to close the book. You can't call it an ending because so many options are left open and many loose ends are left without a knot.

The first poem-"Eye Saw"-is a clever play with words which has many different meanings. It could be a simple gesture of goodbye from Nik to his wanted love, Julie. "The last of each other". But it might, and more likely is, connected to faith, as the whole book has been. "The eyes of God" - a saying regularly used by religious people, but used in a different context within this poem. By use of eyes we can see the physical things in life, but by using our inner eye, our soul, we can see who we are, and find out what we really believe.                 

The other "poem" I found very interesting and challenging was the jumble of words named "Birthday Song". The ideas in this clutter came together as soon as I sat down and opened my mind, freeing it of all irrelevant thoughts. You cannot really call these jumbles "poems" because they are not quite poetry but not quite prose either. In Aidan's own words they are more like a ritual in words.                

The first two lines create an open-ended enigma - "An identity to speak of?" This leaves us free to decide who Nik is talking about, be it Julie, God, Jesus or himself. If he is speaking about Julie it would make sense because Julie is the one who helped him find his real answer, but I believe he is speaking about Jesus at this point. I think this is because Jesus has no real identity to speak of because He is "not one but all". If Nik is talking about Jesus it ties in with the next lines - "I was born a book. You should read it, might get a surprise." The book could be the Bible and the body of Jesus is born and reborn in that book. 

The next verse makes it quite obvious what Nik is talking - Silence. The silence that occurs in the monastery, and the place where Nik made a decision about how to determine what faith really is.

When, in the next "paragraph", Nik talks about "writing in Silence" I believe he does not mean writing as a physical action to create a piece on paper with a pen, but that he used his mind to create a sort of organised string of words. "Make new sentences, new meanings". I believe this means that Nik created a thought in his head by just being who he is and that by careful yet unconscious thought processes he was able to come to an altogether different aspect of this same particular thought. Faith could be thought of in this way, with people that believe just unconsciously understanding the new meaning that they have reached, whilst people trying to believe yet failing would not have grasped the mental attitude needed. This could mean that, for instance, Julie or the Brothers at the monastery were already unconsciously believing and therefore consciously following their subconscious ideas, but Nik needed to reach the subconscious level through Silence before anything to do with Faith could be understood.                                                                            

If the words were "weaving in and out" they could be thought of as poetic. This is in fact exactly what Nik calls his organiser of thoughts in his mind - "the poet living in ourselves." Nik suggests that this organiser is the subconscious key to everyone's learning. "But for the poet living in ourselves we wouldn't learn anything." I think that this is a very good description of a human being - there is always a string of words in our mind that are there to be sorted into sentences and emerge as proper sentences to make intelligent thoughts.            "End without end." Nik has come to a conclusion in his mind and for his benefit only, but there are still other questions and dark un-reached corners of the idea of belief that no one has dared enter to explore.                                                                              

The ideas tackled in this original novel don't just revolve around Faith. Aidan Chambers portrays accurately the feelings of a slightly hormone-driven teenage boy, balanced well with the boy's logical-minded life and his school life. But even though these other ideas do play a main part in the plot of the novel, the idea of faith has been tackled with unmatched accuracy and understanding. This is because Mr Chambers has the aid of his own experience as he writes truthfully about a life different to many of the readers'.                              

Of course, Faith on the whole is a topic which has been commented on regularly and in many different ways. Aidan uses the more prominent of the main comments as "Stockshots", which happen at seemingly random places. But these places are not random to me anymore. Nik is researching for a film, and has also been asked to help write the script. In a film, the way scenes are cut and "incidental music" help to join one scene to another. One "stockshot" can summarise a whole scene, and one "stockshot" can summarise the entire contents of the previous pages. In this way we can understand the reasons why each particular verse, prose or comment has been used in that particular place.                                                      

I would particularly like to analyse [one] of my favourite quotations because it is the one I find the most linguistically challenging of all the pieces, but it is also the one I find the most sensational: "Hold to the now, the here, through which all future plunges to the past, and all the past plunges to the future. For everything is the neck of the hourglass, the kiss of two cones."                                           

The main idea which cried out to me amidst this sea of prose, is that whoever and wherever you are, no matter what time it is, you are standing on the thin line between past and future. Before you know it, the past is behind you and the future is the now. We are unable to control or stop it and the equilibrium which holds the two delicate ideas together is the exact point at which we stand - moving through time, all the time.

  The stunning metaphor used to describe the equilibrium point is "the neck of the hourglass, the kiss of two cones." The hourglass is quite an apt inanimate object to have chosen - an hourglass shows us time and slowly yet regularly passes, as does time into eternity.           The kiss of two cones is, I believe, referring to the neck of the hourglass where the two containers of sand meet. But the beauty of it is you can easily imagine "past" to be one cone and "future" to be the other cone. They "kiss" at the present time and each moment is another "kiss" whilst time moves as regularly as ever, with past mixing with future for that one moment to make an equilibrium where we can live, still remembering what has been and wondering what is to come.

Now I Know was a thrilling book to read, and has been the most exhilarating book to analyse. At every new paragraph the readers must stop, absorb it, think about the meaning and carry on. By having to look deeply into the very soul of this book, I believe that I have become more perceptive and persistent and I know that I will continue to read this book with greater understanding at each time.

I cannot compare this book accurately with other teenage novels and give it the respect and attitude it deserves as I have never before read a teenage novel that dealt with this topic. I can say, however, that Aidan Chambers has successfully created a riveting and engaging novel on a difficult topic, with not a hint of evangelism.

© Charlotte Richardson




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