Monday, October 3, 2016

Review: Challenger Deep – Neal Shusterman

Challenger Deep – Neal Shusterman

Caden Bosch is on a ship that's headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench. 
Caden Bosch is a brilliant high school student whose friends are starting to notice his odd behavior. 
Caden Bosch is designated the ship's artist in residence, to document the journey with images. 
Caden Bosch pretends to join the school track team but spends his days walking for miles, absorbed by the thoughts in his head. 
Caden Bosch is split between his allegiance to the captain and the allure of mutiny. 
Caden Bosch is torn.

Review: This is one of those books that people either seem to love or hate. When I told the Internet I was reading Challenger Deep, I got a lot of mixed reactions. Some people said the book is weird, boring, and confusing; others said it’s brilliant. I was a little hesitant to start reading, but after I finished it, I decided I’m firmly in the “love” camp.

Caden is a boy who lives in two worlds. He’s trying to function in the real world, but his thoughts are aboard an imaginary ship that’s heading for Challenger Deep. Eventually, Caden ends up in a hospital where doctors fight to control his ship-themed hallucinations.

If you’re interested in books about mental illness, then this is a must-read. It completely thwarts the stereotypes typically seen in YA illness books:

Love isn’t magic. Challenger Deep shows that illnesses can’t be cured with love. Caden’s family loves him, but he’s still sick. He finds a girl who he’s kind of interested in, but he’s still sick. Unlike in a lot of YA books, love doesn’t magically fix his problems.

“There are times I feel like I'm the kid screaming at the bottom of the well, and my dog runs off to pee on trees instead of getting help.” – Challenger Deep

Doctors aren’t magic. There is still a lot to learn about treating mental illnesses. Doctors make mistakes and educated guesses. Sometimes it’s not even clear what illness a person has. This book shows doctors trying and failing to figure out how to make Caden better.

Medicine isn’t magic. Sometimes, a sick person can’t just swallow a pill and instantly get better. Many types of medication need to build up in a person’s body for weeks before anybody even knows if the medicine is working. If it’s not working, the medicine needs to be changed. Switching medications can cause many nasty side-effects. Challenger Deep doesn’t shy away from showing all that unpleasantness.

“They all think medicine should be magic, and they become mad at me when it's not.” – Challenger Deep 

Mental illnesses aren’t sexy. Many YA books have that “depressed, angry bad boy” character. That character shouldn’t be a sex-symbol. He should get help before he hurts himself or somebody else. In Challenger Deep, there’s nothing sexy about Caden’s depressed behavior.

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

Endings aren’t always perfect. Sometimes illnesses go away. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they go away for a while and then come back. Caden’s story might not have a happy ending. 

Tragic backstories aren’t required. There’s a stereotype in books (and in real life) that mental illnesses are caused by something traumatic that happened in a person’s past. A lot of mental illnesses are caused by chemical imbalances. A person can be born with a chemical imbalance or develop one later in life. Caden doesn’t have a tragic backstory. He’s just a sick kid.  

Obviously, there is a lot this book does right, but I still have a few issues with it. It took me a long time to get interested in the story. I think I was over halfway through it before I found myself wanting to pick it up. The story switches back and forth between Caden’s ship hallucination and his real life, but it doesn’t feel like much is happening in either of those places. The hallucination is vividly bizarre, but it isn’t “real,” so there’s not much suspense there. Caden spends most of his real life wandering around, hallucinating. There isn’t much suspense in that, either. I felt like I was just sitting around, waiting for something to happen in the plot.

The story becomes a lot more interesting when the connections between the hallucinations and Caden’s real world start showing up. I enjoyed trying to spot the connections before they were revealed. I also really admire the way the author moves between the hallucinations and Caden’s real life. I reread parts of the book just to find out how he manages those transitions so smoothly. It’s impressive.

Also—this isn’t a criticism of the book—but I wondered how Caden’s family could afford to keep him in a hospital for nine weeks. Can you imagine how expensive that would be? Either they’re rich, or they have the greatest insurance in the history of insurance. Nine weeks in a hospital! Can people really afford that?

Anyway, I can see why this book is getting so much attention from readers and award committees. It’s a gritty depiction of mental illness, and it’s definitely well-written and unusual.


  1. This sounds so good! I've had my eye on it since it came out, but I've also seen so many mixed reviews that I wasn't sure. I like that this doesn't romanticize mental illness and the ending sounds really realistic too. Great review :D

    Tracy @ Cornerfolds

    1. I completely understand the mixed reviews. It’s a strange book.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  2. This has been on my TBR/wish list for ever. I know it is a love it or hate it kind of book but I really want to try it. Great review!

  3. This one sounds intruiging. I agree with you on romanticing mental illness. Great review. :)

  4. I LOVED this book, so I'm relieved you did too. I read it just after I finished a course for family members of people with mental illnesses, so although I don't have any direct knowledge of schizophrenia, I'd just met a bunch of people who are in the position of Caden's family. And all of the bullet points you list apply to other mental illnesses as well, of course. (And it's SO FRUSTRATING, but there you go.)

    I agree that the connections between Real Life and Hallucinations were fun to puzzle out and made the book less baffling. I just had the impression this was some wealthy NYC family, but maybe I just imagine that because in literature (and TV/movies) everyone in New York is either fabulously wealthy or barely scraping by.

    1. I guess young adult readers wouldn’t think about the cost of medical bills, but my adult brain nearly exploded when I saw he’d been in the hospital for 9 weeks. Someone must be rich.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  5. Ooo this sounds so good. Eek gads nine weeks, yep they must have really good insurance. Great review, love the breakdown.

  6. I like this, especially your description of the reality the book shows. I'm also interested in the connection between his illness and the hallucinations -- that's a new take, I think. Overall this was a really thoughtful, striking review.

  7. So glad you enjoyed this one (I didn't realize so many people don't like it!). You've hit on all the reasons why I enjoyed it - it's so very real when it comes to the depiction of mental illness. Shusterman has long been a favourite author of mine and I was really impressed by this book.

    1. Shusterman is one of my favorite authors, too. His books rarely disappoint me.

      Aj @ Read All The Things!

  8. I am so glad you're in the "love" group for this one. There are so many mixed opinions out there, but I've always liked Shusterman's work before. This was very different, but extremely good. I also loved spotting those connections between what was reality and what was a hallucination. And I appreciate that he kept this realistic and gritty without making it extremely depressing. I did cry several times, I have to admit, because some of Caden's struggles hit very close to home.

    This was a great review and you hit on some excellent points.

  9. I am absolutely with you in camp "love it". This book is just... incredible. I did have similar issues with getting into it, but even that can't negate the power of this book for me. You nailed all the points brilliantly, this review is SO well done!

    As for the insurance bit, first, him being underage and having a schizo-based disorder would probably qualify him for medical assistance. Even so, I think that a moderately decent insurance WOULD pay for inpatient treatment- at least the bulk of it. Now, 10 years ago? NOPE, probably not. But there has been a LOT of progress on mental health care over the past few years, and most insurances are now mandated to cover it, so I assume that would fall under this umbrella. (This is just based on my own experiences with trying to obtain mental health care in college, versus now- I kind of became a little versed on it hahah). But anyway, yes, phenomenal review!

  10. I wasn't really paying attention to this one because of the blurb and the cover. Deep water freaks me out. Finding out about the mental illness issue and doing it well? Instant add.

    So glad to hear it doesn't fall into the typical pitfalls of portrayal. Thank you so much for this review!


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