One of YA literature’s greatest writers
brings us an unforgettable character

h1 November 29th, 2006 by jules

cornelia-kenn.jpgWhew. Where to begin? This is All: The Pillow Book of Cordelia Kenn by Aidan Chambers is his tome — 808 pages that take us into the mind, the heart, the soul of one teenaged Cornelia Kenn. And it completes what he calls his Dance Sequence of novels (“a dance because it was while I was writing Dance on My Grave that I realised there would be six novels,” he writes on his site. “Together they paint a portrait of a certain kind of youthful life, of becoming adult in the last years of the twentieth century and the first of the new millennium. Each is especially concerned with particular kinds of experience.” Read the above Dance Sequence link to read more about this, his six-novel sequence). To say This is All is verbose is to put it mildly; I dare say that I’ve yet to read a more comprehensive — and fascinating — look at a teen’s inner life. This is one addictive read. I found myself exasperated with and frustrated by and seduced by and in love with this character — often all on one page. When I put the book down, I felt like I’d said goodbye to a friend. And, as Michael Cart of Booklist put it in his review, this is “the masterpiece of one of young-adult literature’s greatest living writers.” And Kirkus Reviews pretty much gets to the bottom line in their review of this title: “With profound respect for readers, Chambers again stretches the YA genre to its edges and beyond.” This is what I love about Chambers . . . but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let me tell you what this one’s about.

Cornelia Kenn is 19 years old and excitedly awaiting the arrival of her daughter, her first child. She sets out to record her life as it was lived from ages 15 to 20 in her own version of what is called a pillow book. Cornelia’s best friend in high school, Izumi — a Japanese student who moved to the States with her family and was named after Izumi Shikibu, the great Japanese author of tanka, a genre of Japanese poetry even older than haiku — tells Cornelia about The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, written a thousand years ago (the book was completed in the year 1002) by a Japanese woman in her early 20s who was a lady-in-waiting at the court of the emperor’s first wife; the pillow book is considered a masterpiece of Japanese literature. Attempting to emulate this style of writing, Cordelia combines her writings from her teenage years with writing addressed specifically to her unborn daughter (and this includes poems, ideas, lists, stories, impressions, descriptions of events and people in her life, etc.); this pillow book will be a gift to her daughter for her to read herself when she turns sixteen.

And to give you an idea of the tone here, Cornelia is passionate; intellectually precocious; eager to explore spirituality; sometimes fickle and impulsive; other times too cerebral; but always deeply contemplative and always possessing a fervor to wax philosophical. She also loves to write and study poetry and aims for that to be her life’s goal, somehow, some way. “{I}t is my fate to put words on paper,” she writes (the heart of this novel is the subject of love, sweet love, but it also touches heavily upon poetry — creating it, reading it, understanding it, and having an almost-unquenchable passion for it). A majority of the novel is about her relationship with Will Blacklin, a character so vividly realized that he seems to step off the page. Cornelia consciously chooses the handsome, oboe-playing, intellectual Will — who wants to marry his studies and life’s work with his love for trees — as her first lover, and after getting to know him (through the ruse of wanting to play piano and oboe pieces with him) and revealing to him that she wants to lose her virginity to him, realizes she has fallen for him. Thus begins their long and intense relationship, the heart of the novel. I don’t want to give away any other major plot points, so as to avoid spoiling your reading experience; let the book’s depth and insights unfold for you. But I will say that two emotionally intense events towards the book’s close completely blindsided me; arguably, we are provided little to no foreshadowing. It was at this point that I realized how much of a goner I was, that Chambers had me good. I couldn’t put the book down.

Cornelia’s is a terrifically intimate voice. Possessed with a quick mind and keen intellect (this is a teen with pictures of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare, John Donne, Henry Wriothsley, William Cecil, and Ben Jonson on her bedroom walls), she welcomes us into her thoughts with astonishing candor. She is a lover of Shakespeare, and references and allusions to him and his work fill the novel. And through an intense relationship with her English teacher, who becomes a spiritual mentor for her as well, she begins to explore more poetry, to explore her future prospects as a poet and how to continue to make poetry a priority in her life. Poetry lovers will revel in her analyses of works that Julie, her teacher, provides her; her attempts at writing her own tanka; her emerging passion for Emily Dickinson’s life and work; and her other original writings. She is a lover of lists (“Graceful people, graceful things: a simple black well-cut dress. The way Izumi eats. Jasmine tea in a snow-white cup with no handles and blue flowers on it. A black cat stretched out along the top of a brick wall in the sunshine . . .”). She has little to no sexual inhibitions and writes about them openly, frankly. She occasionally digresses and expounds (sometimes maddeningly, sometimes wanderingly; she loves to analyze, wants to understand every bit of herself) on topics such as breasts, her periods, even flatulence. She writes with abandon about her sometimes complicated relationship with her widowed father; her aunt, a mother figure in her life; Will’s controlling mother; Julie, her literature teacher with whom she meditates and continues to explore issues of spirituality with great commitment and interest. All this while continually inviting us to meet what she considers the many aspects of her psyche, struggling with her to understand the woman she is becoming:

I’ve often wondered how much of what we are and what we will become we already know deep in the hidden rooms of our consciousness. And I can’t help feeling, can’t help believing, that all we are and everything about us in all the ages and stages of our life is stored inside us from the very instant of our conception. And that our life is a never-finished exploration of one room after another of our self. Some people settle down in two or three of their rooms, leaving the others to gather dust and deteriorate, like the unexplored rooms of some vast palace. Other people, of whom I’m one, try to find our way into every room, try to spend time in each of them, though we discover quite early there are far too many to get to know, even in all the years of a very long life. We also learn quite soon there are some rooms that we can’t enter on our own. They seem to be firmly locked against us. We can only get inside with the help of someone else, someone who seems to have the key. Sometimes too, vandals and thieves, arsonists and squatters, break into our rooms and wreck them or steal from them or burn them to cinders or occupy them and live there at our expense.

This is a daring, ambitious work (Chambers, as mentioned above, is hard at work here, stretching the limits of the YA genre). And it’s immense, as expressed well in School Librarian’s (journal of the UK’s School Library Association) review: “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.”

One little caveat that perhaps will turn some teens off: Book Two of the novel is comprised of two narratives — on the left pages, we have Cornelia’s random thoughts on random subjects; on the right we have a narrative, mostly involving her friendship/mentorship with her literature teacher. Readers must choose how to read this part of the book. I admit I was quite irritated at first, but I figured out my own system. Some readers may be deterred by this (others, while we’re on the subject, may scoff at the book’s length). But if readers get hooked like I did on Cornelia’s story, Cornelia’s inner workings, nothing will stop them from forging ahead. On that note, I’m also going to place this in the “Adult Fiction” category as well, as it’s a good crossover title, Cornelia often looking back on particular teenage years to provide insight, as we’re oft to do as adults.

As the VOYA review put it, this one never hits a false note. I’m still reeling from the read, mildly mourning the end of Cornelia’s story, the good-bye I had to say to her musings, and I won’t forget her for a long time. A stimulating, bracing read.

8 comments to “One of YA literature’s greatest writers
brings us an unforgettable character”

  1. well, i’m sold. this sounds like a good one to treat myself to after i finish my class.

    have you read any of his others? i admit i haven’t… do you think i should read any of the others in the dance sequence before starting this one? do they share characters/settings?

  2. nope, they do not share characters/settings, as far as i know, though i’ve only read ‘postcards from no man’s land.’ i could be wrong, but i do know that they stand alone and can be read individually without confusion.

    oh, and i LOVED ‘postcards,’ by the way. and it’s a Carnegie Medal and Printz Award winner if you care about that . . .

    i’ll be curious to see what you think about Cordelia’s long, verbose book! you have to be willing to read the wanderings of a teenage mind in many, many places, but Chambers pretty much nails it (in the acknowledgements, he thanks many women in his life, including his wife, for help, but still….how DID he get into a teenaged girl’s mind so well? Very impressive). And the heart of the story — love, sweet love — is unforgettable, in my humble opinion. I’m glad someone nominated this one for a Cybil . . .

  3. oh, and eisha, i think you might enjoy her friendship with Izumi, since I remember one of your best friends from high school — if not your best — was Japanese. it was really interesting to me to read about how they met, how when Izumi was a new student and shy and not speaking to anyone because of the cultural differences, how Cornelia overcame that. she does so by not speaking to her but sending her a little note while sitting on the opposite side of a tree from her. Cornelia had given some thought to the reasons why a girl from Japan might be overwhelmed in a new school in our culture, and it was very interesting to me how she acknowledged that and how she went about befriending her. the scene sticks out in my memory anyway.

    okay, i’m done now.

  4. I was underwhelmed by This Is All (found the characters unbelievable as well as plot details), but it’s interesting to read in such detail why people do like it.

    AC does use characters from other books; Julie (the teacher) was in his Now I Know at

    I’m not sure what others link like that.

  5. thanks for commenting, liz. which characters did you find unbelievable? cordelia and will are certainly unique in their commitments and intellectual quests, but i thought it was a welcome relief to read and a beacon in the dark for teens who are searching intellectually, spiritually, etc. (this type of nerdy-chic that eisha and i discussed on our review of ‘an abundance of katherines’)…i do have one huge complaint about one of Cordelia’s relationships, but i don’t want to give away plot details. anyway, thanks again for commenting. i can dig that it’s not everyone’s favorite YA title of the year.

  6. Cordelia never gelled for me as a person; I found some of her actions unbelievable for the character, and that includes some of the stuff with Will when she first met him, some of the stuff that went on when Will was in college, and also that other stuff that would be spoilery. She never became “real.”

    And I also felt as if I were being lectured by C — I kept thinking, shut up. It didn’t feel as part of the story; and perhaps it works in the sense that C is lecturing to her unborn child, but still, it turned me off.

    What did work for me? The infatuation / lust of Cordelia and Will in the first third of the book. I felt that was wonderfully captured. And had the second part (Will in college) been about someone other than Cordelia, it would have worked also (I just didn’t think it was consistent with her character.) (OK I think I have avoided anything spoilery!!!) I also like her thoughts as someone who wants to be an poet and what the process is to achieve and obtain that type of artistic growth and expression.

  7. Yes, I’ll give a nod to the inconsistency of character you named (when Will was in college); that was my one huge complaint I mentioned earlier. I couldn’t really write of that in the review, though, without being spoiler-y. I still agree, though, that the writing, generally, doesn’t hit any false notes. It’s still conceivable what she did, though one particular aspect of it was inconsistent with her, I think….well, I can’t say anymore without spoiling. Some of the maddening moments I mention also have to do with some of her behavior and the results of them, but — again — I can’t say much.

    Anyway, food for thought. Thanks for playing!

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