By Kayla Whittle
Whether you’ve been a fan of Neal Shusterman or you’ve never heard of the author, you’ll quickly be enraptured by “Challenger Deep.”
The novel is everything I wanted in a book and more. I’ve been a fan of Shusterman for years, and though he is most well-known for his “Unwind” dystology — a dystopian that’s barely short of horror — this fictive narrative that depicts mental illness in the modern age is equally as brilliant.
Now I know that whatever Shusterman writes, whatever the genre, his writing is powerful enough to transcend every obstacle and transform his characters and ideas into something epic.
“Challenger Deep” is emotionally packed, stressful and more grounded in reality — some of the time. The novel follows Caden, a typical high school student who begins to no longer tell the difference between what is real and what are the things that only he can see. Caden pretends to join the track team, but instead spends his time walking for miles trying to understand what is going on in his head.
This book ended up feeling more surreal than most actual fantasy books, as the reader needs to piece together what is happening before revelations are made in the book.
I think that Shusterman did a fantastic job in writing about mental illness. The novel approaches an issue that many who suffer with mental illness face — trying to put their feelings and thoughts into words. Caden is trying to work through his illness as depicted by the overarching metaphor that he is on a ship that’s headed for the deepest point on Earth: Challenger Deep, the southern part of the Marianas Trench. Trying to piece together his words, Caden is designated as the ship’s resident artist and begins to find his voice through his art.
Though I’ve never experienced something like this myself or known someone who has gone through this kind of illness, I was touched even more when I found out that the author based his characters around the real-life experiences which people close to him have had. While I didn’t think Shusterman would approach such a topic lightly, it’s a heavy reminder that this book which can feel so reminiscent of fantasy in its tumultuous scenes is reality for some out there. It’s a depiction of the daily struggle they go through.
To me, mental illness can seem more terrifying than any sea monster or treacherous ship captain, referring to some of the things Caden can see. It’s something most people prefer not to speak of and there are so many stigmas attached to labels of illness, even now when most think we’ve made so much progress. Shusterman wrote about that, too. There were so many major issues that he managed to thread into this novel without throwing his messages in the reader’s face, which I think is yet another thing that made this novel so beautiful.
It’s one that I’m definitely going to reread, and I need to buy a physical copy of it to add to my collection. I think anyone could learn something from “Challenger Deep” — and enjoy reading it while they’re at it. Even though it can get dark, there’s Caden’s humor to light the way, and you’ll find yourself rooting for him through every step.