The short: 4.5/5 ✦. An stunning exploration of mental illness through the eyes of a young man caught between two realities. An amazingly well-written, realistic, and beautifully illustrated novel.
This book isn’t so much a novel with a plot as it is an exploration of a character. Let me be clear, that’s not a negative thing at all. But it does make it hard to describe and review. To say that it’s about a boy with mental illness and his struggles with it simply doesn’t do this book justice. That synopsis isn’t wrong, but it’s not quite right, either.
As a disclaimer, I don’t have a mental illness, or at least, I’ve never been medically diagnosed with one. I do have anxiety in various forms, which was really bad when I was younger. I actually probably should’ve gone into therapy then and at least consider it now, but I’m fortunate that my anxiety doesn’t greatly affect my daily life. It’s there, it exists, and some days are worse than others, but I’m otherwise “normal” (neurotypical).
Caden doesn’t have that luxury, and I like that Shusterman doesn’t shy away from reality. In the acknowledgements, he states that his own son was the inspiration for Caden and Challenger Deep (and who drew the pictures), which brings a melancholy note to the whole thing but also an encouraging one. A diagnosis isn’t a death sentence; it’s more of an asterisk for a footnote. It’s a part of you, but it’s not YOU. And Caden felt realistic in that sense. Even though the book starts when his delusions have already been happening, you get a sense of what his life has been like – a typical teenager’s – and how in the end, it will still largely be that way. Except now he has an extra responsibility.
As this amazing review pointed out, mental illness isn’t something easily cured or resolved with medication or romance or what-have-you. It’s a never-ending struggle that will last the rest of your life. Some people have it better than others, but there will always be concerns about psychiatrists and medicines and triggering locations, etc. It’s not something talked about publicly, so few people realize that being diagnosed with and treated for mental illness really is a journey into the deep. And this book allows us a raw glimpse into that world.
I wasn’t particularly confused going in, since I knew the changing story-lines would eventually make sense. I will admit that the beginning is difficult to read, but only because it’s heart-breaking, since Caden needs help but won’t – can’t – say what’s wrong. Mild spoiler alert (probably a bit late), he does get the help he needs, both in reality and in the context of his own mind. I like that he is never truly diagnosed with anything. It makes harder to figure out his symptoms, but then, it doesn’t really matter; this is his reality, regardless of what labels you attach to it. For him, his mental illness manifests as him being a crew-member on an old-fashioned ship. Elements from the real world have their nautical counterparts, but it’s more about Caden and his decisions in regards to how to deal with this new mental development. It would be spoiling to say anything else, as it’s better for the reader to take that journey with Caden.
This book is truly fantastic, and I highly recommend to anyone and everyone. Especially since it’s not depressing, but nor does it shy away from harsh truths. It’s tough, rough – and hopeful.
Header image: Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman, published April 21st 2015 by HarperTeen.