Neal Shusterman’s book Challenger Deep was on my radar even before it won the National Book Award for young people’s literature -I swear! But winning the award didn’t shake my interest either. As someone who has lived with anxiety and depression I’m wary of books, especially YA books, with these issues as their focus. Sometimes in YA mental illness is treated too “cutely” for my taste. And I really hate when it’s a surprise plot twist – as in actually none of this happened because the narrator is just batshit crazy!
In adult fiction I often find mental illness too hard for me to read about -call it a trigger if you want, but I just call it hard. It’s hard to read about harmful or scary thoughts that are not that different from ones you’ve had yourself. It’s even harder when the person having them is behaving in ways that are self destructive.
All this is to say I was relieved and a bit surprised to fall in love with Challenger Deep the way I did. Shusterman brilliantly blends the real world of its main character, sixteen year old Caden Bosch with the delusions and hallucinations that have taken over his life. Caden believes he is at sea, on a pirate ship bound for the Marianas Trench. The Captain and the parrot on the ship are at war for his loyalty. The book almost borders on magical realism but it is always clear that this alternate reality is one of delusion and not fantasy. Being on a ship, being at sea are wonderful metaphors for how Caden is adrift and un-tethered from reality and Shusterman is never heavy handed in using them.
Shusterman does an outstanding job of letting the reader understand how seductive this other world is to Caden but also how dangerous it is for him to remain there. About midway through the book the places where the real world and the world of delusion overlap become more clear to the reader -again a writer of lesser skill would have struggled to bring them together. I can’t say enough about this book for any reader seeking a great story and a better understanding of what it’s like to live through the throws of mental illness.