Neal Shusterman is a prolific writer of amazing young adult fiction. This is the first book of his I’ve read, but after hearing so many great things about Challenger Deep and learning it contains references to Moby Dick and 20,000 Leagues (stories i both love), when it was recommended to me by my wonderful teacher friend Laura, I couldn’t put it off a second longer.
As expected, it was amazing. I’ve never experienced a more beautiful and seemingly (because what do I know) realistic portrayal of severe mental illness. Shusterman wrote the book with the help of his son Brendan who has suffered from mental illness/psychosis, and while the book is not about his son, Shusterman’s experience with mental illness comes through making the story feel honest and personal. The thing that makes Challenger Deep really incredible, though, is its structure. As Shusterman explains in an interview, there are four different types of chapters:
“There’s the real world, in which Caden is losing touch with reality, and becomes an unreliable narrator, because his version of the world is increasingly skewed. Then, simultaneously, there’s the world on the ship – a dark, fantastical voyage which we eventually discover is Caden’s delusion – an alternate version of his experiences in the hospital. Third are observations on life, and reflections on the nature of mental illness, that are almost like journal entries and are not tied to any specific time at all. Fourth are the chapters in which the real world of the hospital, and the world of the ship begin to flow into one another within the same chapter, as those two realities start to merge.”
This structure operates in a way that makes you feel like you are descending into Caden’s mental illness with him. The story is at its most strange when Caden is having a psychotic break and as he begins to come back to reality it is as if you as a reader are coming to understand reality again too. It may seem like I’m giving away spoilers, but in a way there is nothing to give away. I could tell you everything that happens in Challenger Deep and still you would need to read it to understand, because it is the way that it’s written and the experience of reading it that give this book its magic.
Mental Illness is something that is still so misunderstood (partly because it is very hard to understand!!) and Challenger Deep does an amazing job of making it make as much sense as mental illnesses can. I’ll leave you with this beautiful quote from one of the last chapters comparing the mysteries of the brain to the mysteries of the universe:
“There are many things I don’t understand, but here’s one thing I know: There is no such thing as a “correct” diagnosis. There are only symptoms and catchphrases for various collections of symptoms… We are however, creatures of containment. We want all things in life packed into boxes that we can label. But just because we have the ability to label it, doesn’t mean we really know what’s in the box. It’s kind of like religion. It gives us comfort to believe we have defined something that is, by its very nature, indefinable. As to whether or not we’ve gotten it right, well, it’s all a matter of faith.”
You’ll like this book if you like: Young Adult Fiction, teenage protagonists, adventure stories, honest depictions of mental illness