21 May 2015

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

There have been a lot of books in the last year or so that have addressed mental illness in various ways. Most of the ones I’ve read have dealt with depression and bipolar disorder: MY HEART AND OTHER BLACK HOLES, ALL THE BRIGHT PLACES, I WAS HERE, and even FANGIRL. There’s a huge spectrum out there, though, and it’s great to see something new brought to light. Last year, I read Nic Sheff’s SCHIZO, about a boy with schizophrenia, and earlier this year I read MOSQUITOLAND, though I'm still not certain Mim had schizophrenia.

There was nothing ambiguous about Neal Shusterman’s CHALLENGER DEEP: it was a deep dive into a young man deeply affected by schizophrenia (or a related disorder).

Caden Bosch is unraveling. I don’t know how else to put it. From the first page, he’s both here and there, living a life in high school and simultaneously living aboard an insane pirate ship on its way to the Marianas Trench to explore Challenger Deep, the lowest point in the world.

Caden doesn’t know what’s happening to him. His family doesn’t. His friends don’t—they think he’s on drugs. He knows his thoughts don’t make any sense, but he can’t control them. He spends so much time being afraid of things.

It’s one of the most heartbreaking narrations I’ve ever read.

When Caden was finally hospitalized and taken, terrified, from his parents, I almost lost it.

As his doctors try different cocktails of medication, Caden’s narration becomes even more unhinged, sloppy. He switches to second-person perspective for a large swath of the novel. It showed us the disconnect he was experiencing perfectly.

CHALLENGER DEEP is unflinching in its portrayal of Caden’s institutionalization. The people he meets there are just as messed up as him. They aren’t presented as blessed lunatics: they have real problems. Some run even deeper than Caden’s. Some get better. Some get worse. 

And there’s no happily-ever-after, either. Schizophrenia is something you live with for the rest of your life, as Caden comes to learn. You can manage it but you can’t ever believe that it’s gone for good.

CHALLENGER DEEP was breathtaking. It had the poetry of an epic fantasy and the beating heart of the best contemporary story. It never asked for pity, only for empathy. And it earned it in droves.

I really liked CHALLENGER DEEP. I hope it finds a home in lots of readers’ libraries—and lives.