Book Review | Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

challenger-deep-review-paiges-pagesTITLE: Challenger Deep
AUTHOR: Neal Shusterman
PUBLISHER: Harper Teen
RELEASE DATE: April 21, 2015
GENRE: Young Adult Fiction

Challenger Deep is a rare and wonderful mental illness narrative.  It portrays schizophrenia accurately and non-judgmentally, illuminating both insider and outsider perspectives towards it.  With inventive storytelling, this book balances serious with hilarious.  

15-year-old Caden is an ordinary American teenager, except for one thing – he believes in an alternate reality in which he’s a pirate on course to plunder the deepest point of the ocean.  As Caden’s hallucinations and paranoia worsen, his realities bleed into each other.  This is a story of hitting rock bottom, and finding the way back.

So what happens when your universe begins to get off balance, and you don’t have any experience with bringing it back to centre?  All you can do is fight a losing battle, waiting for those walls to collapse, and your life to become one huge mystery ashtray – page 27

It took me several chapters to get into the story, but once I was onboard (pardon the pun), I couldn’t put it down.  At first, I enjoyed Caden’s “real life” chapters more than his pirate chapters.  However, as the line separating the two realities blurs, I love how they feed into each other, revealing clever parallels and metaphors.  The surreal nature of the pirate ship reminds me of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland.

Isolation is an insidious side effect of mental illness.  I appreciate how Caden communicates the stigma he experiences – how outsiders treat him like he’s contagious.  From my uneducated, outsider perspective, schizophrenia seems complicated and scary.  It falls within that problematic “crazy” stereotype, taught to us by movies depicting”mad” patients raving in mental hospitals.  Obviously, this stereotype is untrue and extremely damaging.  I love that Challenger Deep has an empathetic hero who demystifies schizophrenia.  After reading this book, I feel Caden’s challenges are affirming for all mental illness journeys, and without being alienating.

There are many ways in which the “check brain” light illuminates, but here’s the screwed-up part: the driver can’t see it.  It’s like the light is positioned in the backseat cup holder, beneath an empty can of soda that’s been there for a month.  No one sees it but the passengers – and only if they’re really looking for it, or when the light gets so bright and so hot that it melts the can, and sets the whole car on fire – page 107

I was also impressed how well Challenger Deep explains the effects of Caden’s mental illness on his parents:

The two of them are in a lifeboat, together, but so alone.  Miles from shore, yet miles from me … Right now it sucks to be me – but until now, it never occurred to me that it also sucks to be them – page 266

Neal Shusterman uses point of view very meaningfully  The whole narrative is told from Caden’s perspective, but as his mental illness snowballs and he becomes a mental hospital patient, his point of view swaps from first person to second person, making him seem outside of himself and showing his lack of control over what happens to him.  I love this technique.  It reminds me of The Bell Jar, in which Sylvia Plath uses passive voice to portray her powerlessness inside the mental hospital.

Whether you are on your own mental health journey, or want to understand the journey of others, Challenger Deep is a must read.  It strips away the alarmist, fear-induced perspective many outsiders hold and communicates the feelings involved in an empathetic way.  I love how it educated me to stop seeing people with schizophrenia as “other”. 

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