Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Challenger Deep - Brendan Shusterman, Neal Shusterman

Oh my goodness… that reading experience was seriously something special.

With every new novel Neal Shusterman really ups his game.  Challenger Deep was better than even Unwind, I thought.  It was deeper.  That’s right, deeper than Unwind.  Actually, maybe what I mean is that it was more real.  It spoke to a real, very prevalent, situation.  Mental Illness.

Bland Muzak plays in the Vista Lounge through speakers that are built into the ceiling, so we couldn’t grab them and rip them out if we tried.  Muted brass instruments drone on like Charlie Brown’s parents.  ‘Bwah-wa-wah, Bwah-mwah-wa-wah.’ Even the tunes here are medicated.

Caden was a clever kid.  He was a funny kid.  He was relatively popular, talented, and moderately successful kid.  Whether he was a superstar or a problem child, watching him sink would have been sad.  The thing is that mental illness doesn’t pick and choose, though.  It affects everyone and that’s why I think it was a good idea to write this journey about a kid that nobody expected to slide into psychosis.

Shusterman has always had a way of writing his characters and their worlds in a unique way, and this was no exception.  At first the Captain and his pirate ship read as a completely different story from the one taking place in the real world.  The real world was one of delusion, medication, anxiety and distrust.  I admittedly preferred reading the story of Caden’s illness and the reactions of the people around him, rather than read more about his made up world.  However, as the book went on, and the two worlds began to overlap and come together, the more I became invested in learning the purpose for Caden’s brain to have created the ship.  The more I understood, the more I wanted him to succeed.  The question became HOW would he succeed.  Would the end come through the Parrot or the Captain?

“They can beam people in and out of this place,” a kid named Raoul tells me.  “I’ve seen it.”  Rather than argue with Raoul’s construct of reality, I just tell him that I’m not allowed to talk to people with too many consecutive vowels in their name.

Oddly enough, despite the heaviness of the message, the book was also funny.  Caden was funny.  He was snarky, and quick witted (when that wit wasn’t dulled by medication), and I loved him.  I loved him so much that when it got to the end, when I was reading in the dark at 11pm, I was weeping.  It wasn’t a ‘cry’, or a ‘bawl’.  I was weeping.  Reading the words as tears dripped down my cheeks… and it’s not like there’s a big sad moment.  They were tears based only off the emotional depth of the writing.  I felt something powerful for all of those teenagers in Seaview Memorial Hospital.

I think that Challenger Deep does for Mental Illness what Fault in our Stars does for Cancer.  They shed an almost positive and hopeful light on their respective subjects.  They challenge us to think deeper and see wider.  Books that give me fresh and hopeful perspectives on darker subjects are always my favorites, and Challenger Deep is exactly that.  One of my favorites.

Living in the twenty-first century gives a person a much better prognosis for treatment, but sometimes I wish I’d lived in an age before technology.  I would much rather everyone think I was a prophet than some poor sick kid.


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