Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Published by Harper Collins – April 21, 2015
Caden Bosch hasn’t been himself lately. He goes for long walks, returning home with blistered feet and soaked through with rain. He can’t sleep, and lays awake at night until sunrise and sunset are meaningless notions. He can’t bring himself to stay in school, feeling that he was follow the directions of signs around town until he is hopelessly lost. After weeks of strange and erratic behavior escalate into something dangerous, Caden’s parents take him to the hospital, where he is admitted to the juvenile psychiatric ward.
CHALLENGER DEEP is told entirely from Caden’s perspective; sometimes Caden is in the real world, and sometimes he is on a pirate ship bound for the deepest part of the ocean, under the control of a one-eyed captain and his cruel parrot. The reader struggles to determine what is real, and what is not, just as Caden does.
What I loved: The balance between character development and an honest portrayal of mental illness.
“There are times I feel like I’m the kid screaming at the bottom of the well, and my dog runs off to pee on trees instead of getting help.”
Caden is a very well-developed character. It was clear from the beginning that he is a boy with a lot of different sides, and the reader gets to know them all.
Caden is a very sick boy. Shusterman modeled Caden on his own son, who has been treated for schizophrenia. The drawings scattered throughout the books were done by Shusterman’s son, and are reflections of the boy’s mental health. The unashamedly honest and necessarily accurate portrayal of mental illness from inside Caden’s own head is so powerful.
“You come to know the pattern of your particular chemical bombardment. The numbness, the lack of focus, the artificial sense of peace when the meds first hit your system. The growing paranoia and anxiety as they wane. The worse you feel, the more you can get into the treacherous waters of your own thoughts.”
We get to see Caden’s thought processes, the effects of medication, or lack thereof, on his everyday functioning. We see his spiral into darkness, and his return into the light, and everything in between. Shusterman masterfully portrays the benefits and detriments of treatment, and how a lesser evil is often the only choice for someone at the end of their rope.
“Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.”
The verdict: A masterpiece of contemporary fiction, CHALLENGER DEEP brings to life the challenges of mental illness in a compelling and eye-opening story. This is a must-read for everyone who has struggled with their own mental health, or the mental health of a friend or loved one.