Book Review: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

A few years ago, this was a “1book1community” pick. I had picked up a copy but forgot about it until recently. By the time I picked it up again, I forgot the premise and didn’t bother to read the description. So at first, I thought it was about a boy who was on a ship run by who I assumed to be his father, a stringent captain.

But early on in the novel, clues let me know that was not quite it. Early on in the novel, it becomes clear that the protagonist, Caden, is struggling with mental illness. The chapters fluctuate between reality and the constructs of his mind, largely represented by a voyage aboard a ship headed for the Marianas Trench, the lowest point on Earth.

Each element of the increasingly-bizarre voyage coincides with something from Caden’s life. For a spoiler-less example, at one point Caden notes that crewmen sometimes jump from the height of the ship’s lounge, located in the crow’s nest. This is revealed later to come from an experience Caden had with his family in Vegas: his family decided to go bungee jumping, and Caden was forced to go along. There are many other examples of his real life bleeding into his imagined one.

The premise is that mental illness is a long and disturbing journey, as tough for loved ones as it is for the person suffering. No two cases of mental illness are alike, and getting the right balance of medication and therapy is an art rather than a science.

I enjoyed Caden’s intelligent and honest voice. What was more difficult to see but important to think about is that Caden provided us, the reader, with a look at the depths of his mind. But when confronted by friends, therapists, and even family, he is frustratingly quiet about what he is thinking. And possibly, rightly so. After all, how could he begin to explain that he’s on a voyage led by an insane captain sailing to the Marianas Trench in a sailing ship made of metal?

It’s an important read to give perspective on mental illness. At the end, an afterward by the author reveals that the drawings in the novel came from his own son, as did the inspiration behind Caden’s experiences. Caden’s voice shows that mental illness is not about intellect. It is about chemical balances in the brain and the way they interact with the individual.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.