The trenches of mental illness: Challenger Deep

     Hello again readers! As we are nearing the end of 2016, the year seems fixed on steering clear of happy endings. From the monstrosity that is Donald Trump as president elect to countless celebrity deaths to Aleppo to so much more, 2016 has been a roller coaster and I’m so ready to get off. And although my country will enter the new year with a souless orange clown as president, Americans like me will have to fight the good fight and that is another post for another day. Since being home for the holidays, I’ve been reading quite a bit and there’s a particular book that has stayed with me for the past week. It’s called Challenger Deep, written by Neal Shusterman. The genre is YA which is a somewhat unusual choice for me, but I heard good things and the premise sounded promising.


“Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.”

     The story follows Caden Bosch, a talented and smart high school student who is on a voyage to the deepest point on earth with a captain who is not what he seems. Caden’s friends see changes in his personality, his family and teachers are concerned.  Caden’s mind splinters as his fantasy weaves in and out of his present life, bringing him to the point of no return where he makes a difficult choice. This book is ultimately about an adolescent’s mental illness (schizoaffective disorder) and Shusterman does not sugar coat or romanticize Caden’s struggles. What he does is masterfully place the readers inside Caden’s thoughts, taking them on a journey through the dark and vast sea of the mind.

     The book begins smack in the middle of Caden’s excursion to Challenger Deep; the short chapters switch back and forth between reality and the story set on the ship.  At first there is a bit of confusion as to what’s going on and the ship parts may seem a bit slow or awkwardly juxtaposed to the parts of reality. But this is what Shusterman intends, to make the readers feel uncomfortable and confused as the story pans out. This is Caden’s mind, the raw tangled mess that stems from mental illness. And it is only near the end, when the plot reaches its climax, that everything comes together and the heartbreaking symbolism of the voyage becomes real. Here, the emotions hit the hardest, as Caden has to choose between leaving the voyage in an effort to get better or giving into his captains persuasive orders to reach the deepest point of no return.

     The last paragraph of the book, a confrontation between an improved Caden and the captain, will ring true to anyone living with mental illness.

“He will always be waiting, I realize. He will never go away. And in time, I may find myself his first mate whether I want to or not…..And maybe one day I’ll dive so deep that the Abyssal Serpent will catch me…No sense in denying that such things happen. But it’s not going to happen today-and there is a deep, abiding comfort in that. Deep enough to carry me through till tomorrow.” 

     Shusterman gets it right, unlike many other YA books about mental illness. Yes, it can get better and there is a way to surface no matter how impossible it seems, but it will never go away completely. That is just the honest truth, one which Caden understands with a certain mix of acceptance and defiance.


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