Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
From Goodreads: 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 behaviour.
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.
Thanks to Netgalley and Walker Books for an ARC of this book.
CW: Mentions of rape, as well as self-harm, suicide, and mental health (schizophrenia).
Challenger Deep is not a new book, but I think it’s getting a re-release, and I can understand why. The first time I heard about this book was through Emmmabooks’ YouTube channel, and I thought it sounded intriguing. And while I almost entirely forgot that I’d heard about the book before requesting it, I’m glad the knowledge came back to me when I first started reading. It’s not often that I encounter books that deal with mental health issues, particularly ones that go in-depth, so it was really interesting to pick up this book for the first time.
But I am kinda glad that I knew a little bit more about the book, going in, than the blurb let on. Because the first 50 pages or so were pretty hard going. Don’t get me wrong, Challenger Deep is just as finely wrought and wonderfully written as everything else I’ve ever read by Shusterman, but it was so confusing and jarring. There are two different narratives, and especially at the start, they don’t seem to intersect very much. It’s hard to read, particularly as the sections are so short. Some were only half a page or so. And I found it just hard to focus on for a while. I found myself having to force myself to keep turning the pages and not put the book down, and in all honesty there were moments when I almost DNF’d it. Not because the writing wasn’t good- it was, only that my brain was starting to get a bit foggy with all the confusion and I didn’t know if I needed to maybe pick it up another time.
And then, slowly, I started to realise a little bit more about what was going on, remembered that I’d heard about this book before, and looked at it with fresh eyes. As difficult as it was to get through, I do think the first section of the novel is really well written. There are a lot of signs that there’s more going on, but at the same time, I thought it was realistic because those signs were just subtle enough that Caden’s struggles with mental health still seemed out of the blue for everyone around him, including himself. While I don’t have a lot of experience with schizophrenia, I have some experience of other mental health issues, and I will say that it’s often surprising to look back on past behaviours and realise that they’re hints that someone is struggling. Caden’s comments that he felt someone was trying to kill him were clever and poignant. And the metaphors, once you begin to understand them, are very clever. As confusing as it was to read about Caden being on a ship with a captain and the crew, it eventually made sense, and I liked how the jarring confusion I had experienced in the first third or so of the book probably replicated some of the emotions Caden was going through as his mental health got worse.
I think the main strength of Challenger Deep is definitely how it forces the reader to experience some of the thoughts and emotions of someone going through a mental health disorder. I know Emma mentioned in her review of the book that she had a different but similar diagnoses to Caden and that Shusterman had masterfully captured what it felt like to be in her head during this period. And while I can’t really speak on this, since I don’t have any experience of schizophrenia, I will say that the book has received a lot of praise for its representation of the condition. Shusterman bases a lot of this off his son’s own diagnosis and real-life experiences of it, which means he seems to have a lot of details down. Obviously, I’m aware that people who have mental health conditions don’t always think or feel or behave the same way, but I think that’s made clear through Caden’s journey too. In fact, that’s one of the key things I took away from the book.
In terms of the writing style, pacing, voice etc, I do feel like Caden’s narrative was a little on the young side, despite having high vocab words. It’s still YA, of course, but if you’re someone who is used to reading on the higher end of YA (18 year-old protagonists for example) you might find it takes a little bit of getting used to, but to me it definitely felt worth it in the end. The pacing is also quite slow, and overall there’s not a massive plot to the book, but again I feel like this is more of a character driven look into Caden’s psychology and journey through his diagnosis, rather than something that’s meant to be punchy and pace-y all the time. The drawings were an excellent touch, and I was very intrigued to learn that they came from the author’s son.
Overall, I’m giving Challenger Deep an 8/10 stars. I thought the narrative was very engaging and did a lot to try and put the reader in the mind space of Caden, and once I got over the confusing, jarring structure, it made a lot of sense. I found it to be a unique and experimental mode of storytelling, and in all honesty I’ve never read anything quite like it before. I’ll definitely be recommending it. It’s not my usual kind of read, and I did find those first few chapters really hard to get through, but ultimately it proved a rewarding novel and I’m pleased I got to read it.
Has anyone else read this book already or plans to? What do you all think of it? Let me know in the comment section down below ❤