Review for “Challenger Deep” by Neal Shusterman (2015)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
“Sometimes the darkness beyond isn’t glorious at all, it truly is an absence of light. A clawing, needy tar that pulls you down. You drown but you don’t. It turns you to lead so you sink faster in its viscous embrace. It robs you of hope and even the memory of hope. It makes you think you’ve always felt like this, and there’s no place to go but down, where it slowly, ravenously digests your will, distilling it into the ebony crude of nightmares.”
Wow…I liked this book. It’s one of the few YA books that I’ve read in the past few years (other than Francesca Zappia’s “Made You Up”) that actually manages to explore mental illness in a thoughtful, realistic way without becoming too technical or preachy in the process. I’m tired of YA books that seem to feature the so-called glamorous, damsel-in-distress kind of characters in mental institutions. It’s ridiculously unrealistic, as well as a mockery of the fact that mental illness is indeed real, that real people suffer from it. There’s nothing “beautiful” about it.
“Challenger Deep” is the story of Caden, a likable 15 year old kid who experiences mental illness first hand. The word ‘schizophrenia’ is mentioned only twice in the entire novel. Caden’s diagnosis is never named explicitly to the reader, but his experiences have all the hallmarks of this disease. The chapters are short and erratic, switching between Caden’s clinical observations of reality to highly detailed delusions of his role as a sailor on a ship with an evil captain, moving ever closer to the Mariana Trench and ‘Challenger Deep,’ the deepest point on earth. For a while no one seems to suspect what is going on, Caden mostly keeps his troubled thoughts to himself. As he becomes more and more detached from reality, however, his parents place him in a mental hospital for treatment, where he remains until the end of the book.
If you must have a definitive plot when you read fiction, then this is not the book for you. This story is not so much plot-driven as it is an extended, interior stream of Caden’s thoughts. It is a difficult book to read, the narration goes from third person to first person as he goes from normal to delusional and back again, with no warning as to when these shifts will occur. Every now and then a page is decked out with a haunting kind of scribble drawing, created by the author’s son when he went through his own journey with mental illness. Throughout the whole novel, there’s a weird kind of “calmness” to how Caden becomes unraveled that’s scary and heartbreaking. The confused, lucid manner in which the story is being presented is the only way that Caden knows to cope.
I personally felt that the ending was a satisfying one. We know there’s no cure for schizophrenia, and the author does not put on the pretense that Caden will not have challenges ahead for him. What is important is that this story ends with a suggestion of hope, some of kind promise of a normal life for Caden. This book carries an important message that is definitely worth reading about and definitely worth sharing. Highly recommended.
NOTE: With this story, I do admit that I wonder how younger readers with far less knowledge of mental illness will receive this book. As an adult reader with some background knowledge of this subject, I realized very early on what was going on here. Not so sure a teen reader would have the same experience. I’ve been wrong before though, so I dunno…