This Is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn

The 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 is long.

From 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 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.

The 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.

Every 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 fiction.

From a '*Star*' review by Michael Cart in Booklist, USA, Autumn 2006:

Arguably, 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.

From a *star* Kirkus Review, September 2006:

With 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.

From Dinah Hall, journalist, in John McLay's on-line 'Children's Books of the Year 2005':

Once 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.

From 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.


First published by Bodley Head in 2005

ISBN: 0-370-32684-9

£14.99 hardback, 816 pp.

Definitions paperback, January 2007, ISBN 978-0-099-41776-7, £7.99

See 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'

All contents are ©Aidan Chambers unless otherwise stated.



One 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?

There are a number of ways of explaining this.

The 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.

In 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 pillow book.

I'll 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 together.

Book 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.

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.

Book Five is arranged as three 'scenes' in Cordelia's life - another kind of novella.

Each 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.


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