Book Review: “Challenger Deep”


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Content Warning: This review contains difficult themes including depression and suicide

Challenger Deep, written by Neal Shusterman and winner of both the National Book Award and the Golden Kite Award, features 14-year-old Caden Bosch, a teen who struggles with schizophrenia and depression. The novel follows his journey deeper into his schizophrenia; it is primarily split 50|50 between his “real” world and his “alternative” world. In his real world, his parents become increasingly worried about his deteriorating mental health and unwillingly place him in a mental hospital. Meanwhile, in Caden’s world, he lives aboard a pirate ship struggling to obey his orders. Throughout the novel you begin to understand the connections between the two worlds and the symbolism each character and object holds in his alternative world. As the story progresses, you begin to understand the difficulty Caden faces in distinguishing his two worlds and, through his growths and setbacks, he learns about the power of friendship and healing. The story, although containing some dark themes and difficult moments, is equally filled with humor, positivity, and incredible insight into a disorder I had never really understood.

Firstly, I have to say PLEASE. READ. THIS. NOVEL. I’m going to be honest: I’ve started to become not a very avid reader; although I used to devour a book every week, with school, extracurriculars, and other distractions (social media, TV, homework) I wasn’t super excited about reading this book. But, ALAS, Emma and Maggie pulled through with their suggestion and I am so beyond grateful for the opportunity to read this book. I had never really understood schizophrenia and, unfortunately, like everyone else, had a small (yet prevalent) stereotype of the disorder despite not completely understanding the science behind it or the real people (like you and me) that struggle behind closed doors. Although I don’t want to pretend that I am suddenly an expert on schizophrenia or mental illnesses in general, this book created a special place in my heart for those struggling with this disease, and I am eternally grateful to be able to understand, even just the surface, of such a complicated and life-altering illness. 

I loved that while learning about and understanding schizophrenia, the characters were not foreign; at the beginning of the book, I was thrown into this world that I didn’t and couldn’t understand. I was confused by the two worlds, struggled to fully understand Caden and his life, and the drive behind his illness. However, I found myself viewing Caden as a friend, someone I cared deeply for and someone I was ardently rooting for, and I began to grasp his two worlds. I felt soulfully sympathetic to his helpless parents, his innocent sister, his unknowing friends, and his friends also fighting to stay afloat in treatment. Despite creating an unrealistic “alternative” world, Neal Shusterman makes it believable with his detailed description, connections to Caden’s real world, and understandable yet complex symbolism. This novel, I can confidently say, is one of the few books that I deem “impossible to put down.”


The following are some quotes about mental health and mental illness that I found moving from Challenger Deep:

He (Caden’s schizophrenia) will always be waiting, I realize, He will never go away. And in time, I may find myself his first mate whether I want to or not, journeying to points exotic so that I might make another dive, and another, and another. And maybe one day I’ll dive so deep that the Abyssal Serpent will catch me, and I’ll never find my way back. No sense in denying that such things happen.

But it’s not going to happen today – and there is a deep, abiding comfort in that. Deep enough to carry me through till tomorrow.

There are books I will never finish reading, games I will never finish playing, movies that I’ve started and will never see the end of. Ever.

Sometimes there are moments when we objectively face the never, and it overwhelms us…

And so now I mourn. I mourn for the songs that will never reach my ears again. For the words and stories that lie on eternally unopened pages. And I mourn my fifteenth year. And how I will never, from now until the end of time, be able to complete it the way it should have been. Rewinding, and living it again, this time without the captain and the parrot and the pills and the shoelace-free bowels of the White Plastic Kitchen. The stars will go dark and the universe will end before I get this year back.

That is the weight chained to my ankle, and it is far heavier than any anchor. That is the overwhelming never that I must face. And I still don’t know if I’ll disappear into it, or find a way to push beyond.

And suddenly I realize something terrible about my parents.. They are not poisoners. They are not the enemy… but they are helpless.

They want to do something – anything – to help me. Anything to change my situation. But they are as powerless as I am. The two of them are in a lifeboat, together, ut so alone. Miles from shore, yet miles from me. The boat leaks, and they must bail in tandem to keep themselves afloat. It must be exhausting.

The terrible truth of their helplessness is almost too much to bear. I wish I could take them on board, but even if they could reach us, the captain would never allow it.

Right now it sucks to be me – but until now, it never occurred to me that is also must suck to be them.

My parents have wondered if I am, or have ever been, suicidal. My doctors wonder. The insurance questionnaires wonder. It’s not like I haven’t idly thought about it – especially when depression digs in its nasty claws – but have I ever actually crossed the line and been suicidal? I don’t think so. Whenever those thoughts spring up, my sister is the fail-safe. Mackenzie would be screwed up for the rest of her life if she had a brother who killed himself. True, my continued existence could make her life miserable, but misery is the lesser of two evils. A brother who is a problem is easier to deal with than a brother who was a problem.

I still can’t figure out if it’s bravery or cowardice to take your own life. I can’t figure out whether it’s being selfish, or selfless. Is it the ultimate act of letting go of oneself, or a cheap act of self-possession? People say a failed attempt is a cry for help. I guess that’s true if the person meant it to be unsuccessful. But then, I guess most failed attempts aren’t entirely sincere, because, let’s face it, if you want to off yourself, there are plenty of ways to make sure it works.

Still, if you’ve got to bring yourself within inches of your life just to cry for help, something’s wrong somewhere. Either you weren’t yelling loud enough to begin with, or the people around you are deaf, dumb, and blind. Which makes me think it isn’t just a cry for help – it’s more a cry to be taken seriously. A cry that says “I’m hurting so badly, the world must, for once, come to a grinding halt for me.”

The question is, what do you do next? The world stops, and looks at you lying with your wounds bandaged, or your stomach pumped, and says, “Okay, you have my attention/” Most people don’t know what to do with that moment if they get it. Especially if that failed attempt accidentally succeeds.

If you think about it, the public perception of funky brain chemicals has been as varied and weird as the symptoms, historically speaking.

If I had been born a Native American in another time, I might have been lauded as a medicine man. My voices would have been seen as the voices of ancestors imparting wisdom. I would have been treated with great mystical regard.

If I had lived in biblical times, I might have been seen as a prophet, because, let’s face it, there are really only two possibilities; either prophets were actually hearing God speaking to them, or they were mentally ill. I’m sure if an actual prophet surfaced today, he or she would receive plenty of Haldol injections, until the sky opened up and the doctors were slapped silly by the Hand of God.

In the Dark Ages my parents would have sent for an exorcist, because I was clearly possessed by evil spirits, or maybe even the Devil himself.

And if I lived in Dickensian England, I would have been thrown into Bedlam, which is more than just a description of madness. It was an actual place – a “madhouse” where the insane were imprisoned in unthinkable conditions.

Living in the twenty-first century gives a person a much better prognosis for treatment, but sometimes I wish I’d lived in an age before technology. I would much rather everyone think I was a prophet than some poor sick kid.

“At home they expect you to be fixed,” she says. “They say they understand, but the only people who really understand are the ones who’ve been to That Place, too. It’s like a man telling a woman he knows what it feels like to give birth”… “But you won’t be with me at home. Just my parents and my sisters. They all think medicine should be magic, and they become mad when it’s not.”

“I’m sorry.”

“But if I endure it,” she says, “eventually I will settle in. I will find myself as I was before. We do, you know. Find ourselves. Although it’s a little harder each time. Days pass. Weeks. Then we squeeze ourselves back into the skin of who we were before all of this. We put the pieces back together and get on with things.”

I used to be afraid of dying. Now I’m afraid of not living. There’s a difference. We go through life planning for a future, but sometimes that future never comes. I’m talking about personal futures. Mine, to be specific.

There are times I can imagine people who know me looking back ten years from now, and saying things like “He had such potential,” and “What a waste.”8

I think of all the things I want to do and want to be. Ground-breaking artist. Business entrepreneur. Celebrated game designer. “As, he had such potential.” the ghosts of the future lament in mournful voices, shaking their heads.

The fear of not living is a deep, abiding dread of watching your own potential decompose into irredeemable disappointment when “should be” gets crushed by what is. Sometimes I think it would be easier to die than to face that, because “what could have been” is much more highly regarded than “what should have been.” Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.

Maybe this should have been a sign that something was seriously up with me… We always look for the signs we missed when something goes wrong. We become like detectives trying to solve a murder, because maybe if we uncover the clues, it gives us some control. Sure, we can’t change what happened, but if we can string together enough clues, we can prove that whatever nightmare has befallen us, we could have stopped it, if only we had been smart enough. I suppose it’s better to believe in our own stupidity than to believe that all the clues in the world wouldn’t have changed a thing.

Sometimes the darkness is not glorious at all, it truly is an absolute absence of light. A clawing, needy tar that pulls you down. You drown but you don’t. It turns you to lead so you sink faster in its vicious embrace. It robs you of hope and even the memory of hope. It makes you think you’ve always felt like this, and there’s no place to go but down, where it slowly, ravenously digests your will, distilling it into the ebony crude of nightmares.

And you know the darkness beyond despair, just as intimately as you know the soaring heights. Because in this and all universes, there is balance. You can’t have the one without facing the other. And sometimes you think you can take it because the joy is worth the despair, and sometimes you know you can’t take it and how did you ever think you could? And there is the dance; strength and weakness, confidence and desolation.

What do I see when I close my eyes? I see beyond the darkness, and it is immeasurably grand both above me and below.