High schooler Caden Bosch is in the hospital. Caden doesn’t understand why the nurses and doctors make him sit through group therapy and ask him questions both obvious and profound. However, his concerned parents think that there is something off with him. Once outgoing and cheerful, Caden now makes strange decisions, distances himself from people, and makes cryptic comments.
The confused teen wishes that everyone could just understand that there is nothing wrong with him. He’s just seeing things that others cannot. When he is on the ship heading to Challenger Deep, he has a mission. The eccentric captain and his mutinous parrot keep him coming back to the ship, desperate for answers to his seemingly endless list of questions. Why are there brains running around the ship? Who, if anyone, is the good guy on the ship? What is the treasure that both captain and parrot dream of? Most importantly, how can Caden just be himself again?
His oceanic adventures are dangerous, taking him away from the people he cares for. As he struggles with differentiating between fantasy and reality, Caden must gather all of his inner strength and learn to trust those who want to help.
Books about sick children tend to make me nervous. The Fault in Our Stars seems to be unceasingly loved by everyone except me, who failed to be impressed by the plot’s stale ingredients of illness, questionable romance, and overwrought metaphors. That being said, Challenger Deep is not TFIOS. But even if you adored John Green’s magnum opus, hold on. Challenger Deep has a lot to offer.
Schizophrenia is a difficult topic to write about with wit, realism, and sympathy, but Shusterman accomplished all three of those checkpoints. He explains in the author’s note that his son Brendan, who had a mental illness, was a great inspiration. In fact, Brendan’s artwork from when he was “in the depths” is featured in the novel. I appreciated how the simple illustrations added valuable insight into the struggle of schizophrenia.
The novel is told in short chapters that rotate between Caden’s real-world experiences and his dives into the imaginary world of the ship Challenger Deep. If that sounds weird, don’t worry. It took me a little while to get used to the switches, but as you get into the story it becomes easier to keep up with the parallel storylines. I found the glimpses into Caden’s chaotic mind to be fascinating and creative. The parts in real life were just as important, since they let the reader understand what was really going on.
The cast of characters is relatively small, and some of the most important ones exist only in Caden’s head. The ship’s crew allows Shusterman to show off his unique talent for whimsy and wonder that made me think of Alice in Wonderland (the book, not the watered-down Disney movie!). Caden himself is neither directly likable or dislikable. Since he is struggling with schizophrenia, it was difficult to see who the real Caden was like. But by the end, I was cheering him on and wanted him to have a happy ending.
What really pleased me about this book was what was not there – romance. Sometimes, YA authors throw in a random love interest in an attempt to appeal to audiences, only to have the couple flounder in a poorly written relationship. Shusterman keeps readers focused on the real dilemma of mental illness. Caden only has a sort of crush on one girl, but it definitely does not interfere with the main plot. Phew!
Whether you usually go for tales of teen illnesses or not, please try Challenger Deep. It’s a poignant, well-written novel that will change your perspective on mental illness. I know that Caden will stay in my thoughts for a long time.