Where is Caden Bosch? Is he afloat a pirate ship run by a ragtag crew and led by a one-eyed madman and his mutinous one-eyed parrot? Is he laying on the table of an all-white kitchen surrounded by people masquerading as his family? Or is he in the real world where his family, friends, classmates, and even strangers witness his increasing paranoia and deteriorating sense of reality? Maybe he is everywhere at once. This is a story of the descent into mental illness told from the inside, narrated first-person by Caden, except in the few instances that he invites the reader to step into his shoes briefly. The book opens “There are two things you know. One: You were there. Two: You couldn’t have been there.” Chapters alternate settings – some in real life and others in Caden’s alternate reality – in a way that one only occasionally hints at the other, leaving the reader looking for clues as to how they connect until eventually the line between the two begins to blur during Caden’s treatment at a youth psychiatric ward. Suspense builds as it becomes clear in all settings that Caden is headed for the darkest, deepest part – the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Marianas Trench – of his mind, from which he may never return. Shusterman treats the delicate subject matter with impressive care and honesty. He doesn’t sensationalize or vilify mental illness, the treatment facility or the medical staff, unlike many works of fiction who rely on these devices to create drama. Turns out mental illness and the struggle to regain some kind of normalcy is dramatic enough.
Full disclosure: my dad is a psychiatrist and mental illness runs in my family. So when I read books about mental illness and its treatment, I am a very picky reader. Challenger Deep passed my scrutiny. As I said above, there are no cheap tricks here – no electro-shock treatment (which these days is a totally valid and not very dramatic medical procedure), no rooms with padded walls, no abuse at the hands of the medical staff, and no blaming Caden’s mental state on his high school classmates or anyone else (I’m looking at you, 13 Reasons Why). From his author’s note you can understand his sensitive depiction of Caden’s struggle. He has seen others, including his own son, go through it firsthand. I think it is a beautiful thing that he chose to share that struggle through this book.
Challenger Deep is on the longlist for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. Unfortunately I haven’t read any of the other books, which I am seriously beating myself up about now, so I don’t know how it compares to the others. We’ll just have to wait and see. The finalists will be announced on October 14 and the gala where they announce the winners is on November 18.
Placebo Junkies by J.C. Carleson
Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier
We Were Liars by E. Lockhart