Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn
story of Cordelia Kenn, told by herself, covering her life from
the age of fifteen until the birth of her baby when she is almost
twenty. The Pillow Book is an ancient Japanese form: "A notebook
or collection of notebooks kept in some accessible but relatively
private place, and in which the author would from time to time
record impressions, daily events, poems, letters, stories, ideas,
descriptions of people, etc." [Ivan Morris in the notes to The
Pillow Book of Sei Shõnagon.] Cordelia intends to give her
book to her daughter as a sixteenth birthday present, so that
in this way they can share their teenage years. She includes
in her book not only her first love affair and her ambitions
and thoughts and everyday events that are important to her,
but all sorts of things not usually told in stories. She attempts
to include all aspects of her life. Not surprisingly, her book
a review by Peter Hollindale in School Librarian,
Autumn 2005, Vol. 53 No. 3, pp 165-6:
This is all is the most daring of Chambers' experiments
so far. Cordelia Kenn, his first-person narrator, is 19 and
pregnant. Because her vocation is poetry and writing is necessary
to her life, she compiles what she intends to share with her
unborn daughter when the child is 16: the narrative of her own
life from just before her 16th birthday to the present, interspersed
with the 'pillow book' she has assembled in these years. A 'pillow
book', on a Japanese model, is defined here by Ivan Morris as
a 'notebook or collection of notebooks...in which the author
would from time to time record impressions, daily events, poems,
letters, stories, ideas, descriptions of people, etc'. The narrative
thread is thus accompanied by abundant deviations, digressions,
interruptions, pauses, during which we gather insights into
the hidden, true, complex Cordelia, in whose house of self are
many rooms. What Cordelia the young writer intends as a way
of being contemporary with her child is also in practice a kind
of teaching and initiation. This story shall the woman teach
her daughter. Cordelia loves her Shakespeare, and allusions
to him are recurrent and plentiful: the novel is about many
things besides Cordelia, one of them that a life lives on in
language and writing and is recoverable. Which, as things turn
out, is just as well.
book is immense, in size, ambition, scope and reach. The torment,
joy and intensity of sexual learning can rarely have been caught
so vividly. Here is not only Cordelia's sexual, emotional and
mental history in these years, recorded in intimate, self-interrogating
detail, but also the life behind the life, where language quarries
deeply to bring private order out of turbulence. This is 'all'
of Cordelia, and only a vast book can contain it.
bit of Cordelia's long tempest-tossed journey is worth following
with her. Just occasionally she seems briefly to make way for
an authorial cadenza, a homily or joke, which even Cordelia
could not believably achieve in her stormy youth. For instance,
the elaborate displacement activities that mark school exam
revision are not so perfectly or amusingly known at the time
to those who perpetrate them! But for nearly all its length,
this is Cordelia's book. Here is her space. This is all
is a huge and wonderful act of imaginative empathy, for which
all 16 year olds who might be Cordelia's daughters, or sons,
have cause to be grateful, as does the art form of young adult
a '*Star*' review by Michael Cart in Booklist,
USA, Autumn 2006:
the book offers the most complete character study in all of
young-adult literature, showing readers the life, mind, and
soul of a teenage girl, while also giving readers full-dress
portraits of her baby's father, her friends, her family, and
- most satisfyingly - her English teacher and mentor, Julie.
Cordelia records not only her love for these people but also
for Shakespeare, for poetry, for words. Unsparingly honest and
candid, she never flinches from exploring the physical realities
of her body (it appears that girls are flatulent - who knew?)
or from recounting the sexually explicit details of her affair
with an older man and her terrifying ordeal when she is kidnapped
and threatened with rape. Cordelia records it all, because she
wants to understand it all; she wants to know everything about
herself, and her way of understanding is writing. Thus, she
explores the why of things as well as the what
and the how. In so doing, she is by turns captivating
and maddening, for she loves to analyse and to discover ambiguities.
And so her story challenges - but it will grow richer and larger
with each reading. Ultimately, this novel is more than a mere
pièce de résistance; it is the masterpiece of one of young-adult
literature's greatest living writers.
a *star* Kirkus Review, September 2006:
profound respect for readers, Chambers again stretches the YA
genre to its edges and beyond.[…] Characters are intricate and
sometimes infuriating. Moments of horror stunning and unforeshadowed.
Ambitious, imperfect, challenging and powerfully affecting.
Dinah Hall, journalist, in John McLay's on-line 'Children's
Books of the Year 2005':
I'd got over my initial queasiness at the idea of a seventy
year old man writing about sex in the voice of a sixteen year
old girl (sorry: ageism and sexism in one line) I couldn't -
to coin a cliché - put Aidan Chambers' This Is All: The Pillow
Book of Cordelia Kenn down: and given that the book is bloody
heavy at 800 pages that is quite an achievement. I loved the
characters. I loved the pontification. I loved the story (though
I wasn't quite so keen on the ending) and I loved the fact that
soon after reading it, my sixteen-year-old daughter dumped her
boyfriend. Thank you, thank you, Aidan Chambers.
Robert Dunbar in The Irish Times, 12 Nov. 2005:
…a fascinating depiction of what Cordelia at one point designates
'the uneasy, vulnerable, blossoming years of the early teens'.
Its ambition, its complexity and its length demand a slow, close
reading, but one which will be more than repaid by the power
and depth of its insights.
published by Bodley Head in 2005
hardback, 816 pp.
paperback, January 2007, ISBN 978-0-099-41776-7, £7.99
READERS WRITE for an essay by Kate
Smith on 'Meeting and Rescue' in my novels, and by Charlotte
Wu on 'Love, Loss and Longing in This Is All'
contents are ©Aidan Chambers unless otherwise stated.
of the most frequently asked questions is: Why is Book Two of
This Is All arranged as it is, into (a) pages on the
left and (b) pages on the right?
are a number of ways of explaining this.
first is that TIA is based on the Japanese form of the
'pillow book' of Sei Shonagon (a one-thousand year-old classic
of Japanese literature). In it, all sorts of different kinds
of passage - from poems to lists, from anecdotes to letters
- are arranged in a jumbled order (that is, there doesn't seem
to be any particular reason behind the arrangement).
In Book One of TIA the passages are not jumbled, but
are arranged so that there is a storyline to follow, with 'pillow
book' poems and lists and Cordelia's thoughts on various subjects
placed in between the episodes of the story. These passages
sometimes relate to the episodes of the story and sometimes
don't. In other words, Book One is very like Sei Shonagon's
book, except that it has a clear storyline. The reader is expected
to read the pages of Book One in sequence as they would any
novel. But of course, we know that readers can do as they like,
and that sometimes they skip and come back to the skipped passages
later, and so on.
Book Two, however, the story episodes are all together without
any interruption on the right hand (b) pages, and the pillow
book passages are all together on the left hand (a) pages. There
is a relationship between the (a) and (b) pages but it isn't
immediately obvious. The reader has to decide how to read the
Book. You might decide to read all the (b) pages - the story
pages - first, and then come back and read all the pillow book
passages on the (a) pages. Or vice versa: all the (a) pages
first and then all the (b) pages. Or you might 'interleave'
them, so to speak - in other words, mixing the (a) and (b) passages
for yourself, as you feel like it, thus making Book Two like
Book One for yourself. (In fact, judging by the emails and talks
I've had with readers, it seems that this is what most people
decide to do.)
In other words, Book Two 'clarifies' the design of Book One
by separating out the two kinds of passage: the story, and the
come back to this point later, but before that, let's look at
how the rest of the novel works, so that we see how it all fits
Three is like a novella, a short novel all on its own. It has
numbered chapters, like a conventional novel, and there are
no pillow book passages in it. If we think of TIA as a pillow
book in its entirety, Book Three is like the part in Sei Shonagon's
pillow book, where she describes the Empress giving birth to
a child. It is the longest passage in the book, and is told
as one long uninterrupted story. So, again, Book Three takes
its cue from Shonagon's book.
Four is again like a pillow book with a mix of passages, but
this time the passages are arranged alphabetically according
to the first letter of the 'subtitles' of each passage. There
is a story thread - the story about Arry and Cal - but most
of the Book is taken up with pillow book passages on a variety
of subjects of importance to Cordelia. Again, this arrangement
is like some editions of Sei Shonagon's book, for this reason:
When Shonagon wrote her pillow book passages she did not intend
them to be bound into a book. Each passage was written on a
separate sheet of paper, which was then stored in the drawer
of her pillow. There was no link with any of the other pages.
Shonagon wrote whatever she wanted, when she wanted and then
stowed each piece of writing away. It wasn't until five hundred
years later (!) that anyone thought of arranging the pages into
a bound book. And that meant they had to decide on an order
for the pages. Since then there have been many different editions.
Some of them try to arrange the passages in a chronological
order (like a diary); others arrange the passages according
to their subject matter; and so on.
Five is arranged as three 'scenes' in Cordelia's life - another
kind of novella.
one of the Books in TIA is like one of the different
editions of Shonagon's book, or like one of the longer passages
in her book.
Book Six is Will's book, and of course isn't based on the pillow
book form but on the modern form of a memoir - part of a life-history.