I put Challenger Deep on my to-read list when I saw that Neal Shusterman had a new book coming out--in other words, without knowing a thing about it other than that I like the author's work. Love, in the case of the Unwind distology. Then one day I was at the smallest branch of our local library system, which is in the unique position of having fewer books total, but also fewer patrons, which means that the books they DO have are less likely to be checked out at any given moment. Thus, I scored a copy of Challenger Deep--which then sat on my shelf through a few renewal cycles. I'd heard that the book had to do with schizophrenia, and that it was inspired by Shusterman's journey with his own son. I had to be in the right frame of mind to start it. It's not like Unwind is about pretty ideas, but mental illness hits closer to home than abortion and organ harvesting.
When I finally started the book, the first thing I saw was the dedication, to NAMI. I took a NAMI Family-to-Family class last spring--twenty parents, spouses, and adult siblings of people with mental illnesses. If you have a family member who is schizophrenic, bipolar, or majorly depressed (or some fun combo of the above), I cannot recommend this class highly enough. It combines the benefits of a support group, namely being able to speak honestly without fear of judgement because we are ALL THERE TOO--with information you need, even if you don't know enough to know which questions to ask yet. NAMI is also a fantastic resource for people dealing first hand with these issues. So I love that Shusterman gives them such a public shout-out.
There were several parents of schizophrenics in the class. Shusterman has been there, and I am in awe of him for writing a book that, while never denying the effect Caden's illness has on his family, is told unwaveringly from Caden's point of view, even when his point of view is that his family is the enemy, or is unimportant, or is useless. The moment when Caden looks at his parents and realizes that "right now it sucks to be me--but...it also sucks to be them," is heart-breaking in the same way Hazel Grace's occasional insight into how hard her cancer is on her parents. It's worse to be sick. But it's pretty damn awful to watch your child suffer. That's not what the book is about, though. The book is about what it feels like to be inside a mind that has been hijacked by mental illness, and what it's like to have an illness that can sometimes be controlled, but for now, is uncurable.
At first, the style of the book was wildly confusing. It alternates between chapters in which Caden is "with us," and is telling us about his life. Even when he is being paranoid or odd, we can still figure out what is happening. But more of the chapters are a dreamlike story of his adventure on a vast and ominous pirate's ship. Is it metaphor? Is it his dreams? Or hallucinations? It takes a long time to figure any of that out. Two things save the day: Shusterman's writing, and the shortness of the chapters. You never have to spend that long in Caden's trippy headspace, and Shusterman makes the confusing cast of mysterious characters and surreal places something you want to understand. That's what kept me reading, anyway, but I'd still be nervous about recommending this to middle schoolers. It's confusing, man, and I say this as someone who gives a little cheer whenever she realizes the book she's holding is a multiple p.o.v. story.
The story starts coming together in places. You meet the real-world people who inhabit the
dreamspace in altered forms, and you witness the experiences that laed Caden to find himself in the White Kitchen or the crow's nest. It's almost more unsettling to understand where things are coming from, especially when, towards the end, the two worlds, interior and exterior, begin to cross over more and more.
For a book that is as sad and difficult as this one is, there is also plenty of humor. Caden is a funny guy. I love that Shusterman chose to include that as part of his personality. There can be such a sense of "before" and "after" when you talk to family of schizophrenics. Caden addresses this as well, in another heart-breaker of a chapter in which he ennumerates all the things he has lost forever due to his illness. But even scarred by pain and dulled by life-saving meds, the person that remains is the person that was--they just developed in an entirely different direction than anyone forsaw. Caden remains a smart-ass and a loving brother. He remains an artist and a fan of ice cream. (I'm not sure how I feel about using the art that Shusterman's son created while in the mental hospital to represent Caden's art, but it does not detract from the book.)
Five out of five. One of those books that reminds me what the difference is between four and five stars. Not just heart, not just compelling characters and story, but lifting me 100% out of myself and giving me an experience I couldnt' have had on my own.
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman.
pub.; Harper Teen
pub. date: 2015
PG: mature themes (mental illness, suicide)