Monday, 11 May 2015

Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Description 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 behavior.

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.

A captivating and powerful novel that lingers long beyond the last page, Challenger Deep is a heartfelt tour de force by one of today's most admired writers for teens.

I have been postponing writing the review for Challenger Deep for a week now. Not because I don't what to say, or because I didn't like it. I wanted to make justice to it. I fell in love with this novel, Shusterman's prose, the depiction of the agony of having a mental illness, the despair and the confusion that consume the main protagonist, his family, and the readers alike. At times I was absorbed by the story so that I had to read for hours, and then I became so anxious that I had to stop for few days. Challenger Deep is about an issue that has been written about so many times before (yet not talked about enough), but still Shusterman was able to add something original, something personal to the story, making the story touching and important. 

One of the most frequent misunderstandings about people with mental illnesses, is that they transform into completely different people. Yes, mental illnesses change people, their thoughts and their behaviours, but majority of the people with illnesses still are who they were before the onset of the illness. Shusterman depicts this beautifully. Even though Caden, the main character, has lost his sense of reality, he still is Caden. While the adventures Caden has, are anxiety-provoking and painfully clearly in his own head, the reader doesn’t become afraid of them. I’m not exactly sure how the author manages to accomplish it, but as the delusions become a more fundamental part of the storyline, the more natural but less fearsome they become. I’m not saying here that ‘hey, it’s okay if you are delusional and don’t worry if you have some’, but the readers become to understand, that while those symptoms/delusions change Caden’s behaviour, they don’t change Caden as he acts as himself in his mental adventures (if this makes any sense). Caden is still Caden. You just can’t see it because the illness prevents it.

The unification of the reality and the delusions is so elegantly written. At the beginning, the reader is trying to put the pieces together and make sense of the narrative (just as Caden and his family is), but gradually everything seems to fall in place (even though not in the hoped way). Slowly, you begin to understand the roles of the characters and events, as the lives of a high school student and a crewmate of a ship come together, often in surprising ways. The alternating view points of these lives makes the readers intrigued and consumed at the same time. The short chapters only emphasise the fragmented life Caden leads, and how difficult it is for one to lead such life without losing your way. The whole book is a contemplation of nightmarish and brief chapters, which make the book beautiful in a dark way.

The author comments very compellingly how the stigma around mental illnesses still today is strong and burdensome. Even though Caden’s thoughts are occupied where they normally wouldn't be and he becomes obsessed in different rituals, he still is Caden. Yet, sometimes people become afraid of those who have become sick and start teetering around them, in order to not to disturb or make the situation worse. Of course this kind of behavior is a natural response if the mental illnesses are a completely new acquaintances. Caden’s parents are not sure how to react to his worryingly changing behaviour, even though they are desperate to help. His friends start to avoid him or aren’t able to make sense of his behaviour. No one seems to understand what Caden is going through, and this is the sad truth in real life as well. Those who haven’t had a mental illness, just don’t know what these people really are experiencing. We can only try, and often we fail.

Even though I don’t personally have a mental illness, I think all of us have these anxious, consuming thoughts from time to time. The way Shusterman describes these anxious thoughts of Caden, I felt like he had written down my own thoughts that I have had at a bad time (may just not to the same extent as Caden has them), but I had never been able to form into actual words. The fact that Shusterman has personal experience with mental illnesses most likely contributed to this. In the author’s note, he mentions how he lost his best friend to a mental illness, and how his son is currently fighting against one. The author has included some of his son’s drawings in the text, and used some of the descriptions of how it feels to be consumed by a mental illness given by his son. Before you even read Shusterman’s note, you just knew that this isn’t all made up. There is something so powerful and real in the writing, which makes you instantly know that these must be real experiences, at least partially.

I’m still reeling from reading Challenger Deep. I can’t believe how talented writer Shusterman is, and how he was able to write a book that was so confusing, but still made perfect sense. The depiction of suffering from a mental illness is a complex thing, and it’s not a task for everyone. Shusterman, however, nailed it. The importance of writing books about mental illnesses and their complexities is crucial, as the suffers still are misunderstood and don’t always receive a proper reception from others/outsiders. Challenger Deep is a highly recommended novel by me, and definitely my favourite book so far of 2015. I just hope that I have been able to express properly the value I hold for this book.

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