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DARING AND COMPLEX: An essay by María Paula González click
AND RESCUE: An essay by Kate Smith click here
LOSS and LONGING: An essay by Charlotte Wu click
I KNOW: A GCSE essay by Charlotte Richardson click
DARING AND COMPLEX: An essay by María Paula González
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
from No Man's Land: Honest, daring and complex literature
for young adults.
novel epitomizes the best of what contemporary young adult
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.
it, I found what I like the most in literature, its
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.
from No Man's Land is a complex, deep and thought-provoking
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.
think that Chambers' conception of literature and of reading
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).
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
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.
is a Dutch girl, whose existence changed dramatically due
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.
what I liked the most about Geertrui's story are her
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:
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.
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
story is set in the present time. He is a seventeen-year-
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.
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).
contrast between war past times and a complex and confusing
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).
in all, after finishing this novel, one gets the feeling
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".
conclude I enjoyed this novel enormously and I think it
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.
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)
Katherine and M. Lee Manning. Young Adult Literature. Exploration,
Evaluation and Appreciation. New Jersey: Pearson. 2006.
Aidan. "The Death of Populism". aidanchambers.co.uk/
Web. 3 Dec. 2011.
Chambers, Aidan. Postcards from No Man's Land. London:
The Bodley Head. 1999. Print.
Peter. Understanding Children's Literature. London: Penguin.1999.
© copyright María Paula González, 2012.
AND RESCUE: An essay by Kate Smith
and Rescue in the novels of Aidan Chambers
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 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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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'.
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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.
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.
LOSS and LONGING: An essay by Charlotte Wu
Loss and Longing in Aidan Chambers' novel This Is All: The
Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn
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)
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.
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.
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.
'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.
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?'
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.
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.
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.
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'.
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'.
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 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.
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.
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'.
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'.
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
Geoff Fox, Authorgraph no.130, 2001
2006 Charlotte Wu
I KNOW: A GCSE essay by Charlotte Richardson
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."
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
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.
have decided to present my discussion under three headings:
'Nik's ideas before', 'The research' and 'The decision'.
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.
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
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
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."
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
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.
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."
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?"
conclusions about God are as follows:
He would be a woman.
2. You wouldn't recognise Her because She is not one but all.
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.
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.
"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
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.
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
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.
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.
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'.
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.
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."
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
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.
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.
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.