Neal Shusterman’s new Young Adult novel, Challenger Deep, tackles the intense issues of mental illness in teens, along with schizophrenia, a very complex and difficult to describe and understand illness.
And he does it extremely well, providing some insight into mental illness, and the harrowing journey that people facing it must endure.
The story focuses on Caden, a teenager who is sinking further into his own world, one where he is on a ship that is headed for the depths of the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of Earth, at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. Through alternating chapter views (one will be on the ship, one will be in the real world), Caden goes through a journey filled with a cast of characters that mostly seem intent on helping him, others who serve as mentors, and some who stand in his way of reaching his goals.
I will admit that at the beginning of the novel, everything seemed quite fractured, and the very short chapters interrupted much of the flow of the narrative. Which, I suppose, is part of the point. It just took me a while to catch on to the whole thing, but once I did, it all fell into place very nicely, and the two stories melded together seamlessly, providing more meaning to each.
What Challenger Deep offers in an insight into something that we know very little about: the problems of mental illness, and what people must go through in order to overcome their obstacles with the illness. For a good part of the novel, Caden is hospitalized, and we gain an understanding of the people that are in the hospital with him: their struggles, along with his. And we get a perspective from the patient on what it is like dealing with others, whose sole goal is to improve and steady their mental health, in order for them to be active members of society again. Shusterman also provides a very strong view of the impact on family when illness strikes, allowing us to see and understand what Caden’s parents and younger sister are going through while he is in the hospital.
Some of the more touching moments of the novel occur between Caden and his sister, as she is too young and innocent to completely understand what is happening with her brother, but old enough to share her thoughts and ask the questions that, seemingly, nobody else will ask.
While I didn’t initially love the start of the book, more based on my reading style, once everything came together, Challenger Deep became a strong, and important, YA novel. It is one that could not only have a great impact on those who suffer from mental health issues, or have in the past, but on those who need to be provided with something to help us understand what is taking place in the minds of those who suffer.
Filled with interesting characters, Challenger Deep may not be for everyone, but it is a very, very good YA novel.