Caden Bosch is living two lives. In one life, he’s an artist on board a ship heading to the deepest point of the Mariana Trench, known as Challenger Deep. Lorded over by an eye-patched, parrot-shouldered captain who is cold and demanding, Caden tries to prove his worth to the crew. He can’t trust the captain’s parrot who wants dirt on the crew members, but he doesn’t fully trust the captain. The swabby, Carlyle, and figurehead, Calliope, are Caden’s only confidantes. When the captain and his parrot turn mutinous towards each other, both call on Caden for help, leaving him wondering whom he can really trust. He wants to prove himself to his captain and crew members by successfully making it to Challenger Deep, and has to decide what he’s willing to sacrifice to fulfill his mission.
In his other life, Caden is a 15-year-old high school student living with his parents and little sister. His friends and family start to worry about Caden’s odd behavior, such as his firm belief other students are trying to kill him, and frequent space-outs. He compulsively checks the news to see if his thoughts cause earthquakes in China. Caden’s friends stop asking him to hang out as his behavior becomes increasingly withdrawn and bizarre. When Caden’s parents find out he’s been lying to them about joining the track team and instead has been using his spare time after school to walk until his feet blister, they check him into a mental hospital. Medication and group therapy sessions force Caden out of his delusions while he fights to figure out what in his life is real and what is imaginary.
Challenger Deep is a compelling look at mental illness from the point of view of the person experiencing it. Neal Shusterman referenced his son’s battles with mental illness, using bits of poems and drawings his son made while in the midst of battling his issues, to write this book. At first, it’s difficult to grasp what’s going on, especially as the storytelling isn’t always linear. Caden’s consciousness is always faltering between reality and his mental realms, so it’s difficult at first to figure out what’s real and what’s imaginary, echoing Caden’s constant confusion between his reality and the dream world the chemicals in his brain make real to him.
The nonsensical banter between the characters on the ship reminded me of Alice in Wonderland. The quirky characters with their odd patterns of speech could easily be found through the looking glass, using metaphor to confuse Alice on her adventures. The psychoactive cocktails served on the crow’s nest could be the bottles labeled “Drink Me.” It’s an interesting parallel, especially with all the speculation that Alice in Wonderland is a metaphor for a drug trip. I’m not sure if the similarities were intentional, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. Much of Caden’s ship-world is unsettling and bizarre, which makes the reader feel the instability Caden is suffering from. His battle within himself to either climb towards the sky and recover or farther throw himself into the deep recesses of his mental illness is the real subject of this book, and it portrays mental illness with a creative pen. Challenger Deep is a must-read for anyone who wants a glimpse into a personal story about mental health that happens to have action, adventure, and mystery.
Rating: 4 out of 5 brain balloons
2016 POPSUGAR Reading Challenge Categories: A National Book Award Winner, A Book With A Blue Cover