Challenger Deep is a brilliant exploration of what it’s like to be a teenager with psychosis. Told in first person, it chronicles the insidious development of mental illness and its impact – on school, family, and the individual. Alongside this, there is a story about a ship on a quest to the Marianas Trench, with the narrative alternating between the two. The purpose of this second storyline is not immediately clear, but as more is revealed the two cleverly intersect. Each plotline provides relief when the other gets too heavy – this isn’t a book that shies away from the dark parts of mental illness.
‘The things I feel cannot be put into words, or if they can, the words are in no language anyone can understand’.
The protagonist, Caden, is fifteen and an American schoolkid. He’s always been a smart, social kid, the type to flit effortlessly between friend groups and fit in anywhere. He’s an artist, spending his free time drawing and designing video games with his friends.
In the parallel story, Caden, is a crewmember on a ship. He’s the youngest member of the crew, still trying to figure out where he fits in. He shares a cabin with the ship’s navigator, a man with a fondness for alliteration and rhyme who spends his time creating maps and star charts. At night, he dreams about the White Plastic Kitchen, a kitchen full of sparkling white appliances that regularly plays host to monsters.
The highlight of this book is the language. The way Caden’s internal monologue is narrated is gorgeous – often harrowing and disturbing, but written so well it’s hauntingly beautiful. I’ve read other books by Neil Shusterman, but this is undoubtedly where his linguistic skills are at their best.
‘What’s going on? I’m in the back of the car of a roller coaster at the top of the climb, with the front rows already giving themselves over to gravity. I can hear those front riders screaming and know my own scream is only seconds away… I’m leaping off a cliff only to discover that I can fly… and then realising there’s nowhere to land. Ever. That’s what’s going on.’
Shusterman mentions in the notes at the end that he created Caden with collaboration from a family member who suffered from psychosis. Having worked with psychosis patients myself, it seems – from an outsider’s perspective – to be an excellent depiction. His mannerisms, actions, speech, changes in emotions – all of them change with the course of the disease, subtly at first until they become overwhelmingly obvious. Later in the book, Caden also meets other patients with various mental illnesses, and – whilst we only get Caden’s perspective of them – their presentations also feel accurate. I’m always wary of fictional depictions of psychosis because of how much stigma there is against it, but Shusterman avoids all the major pitfalls here.
‘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.’
This isn’t always an easy read, and – despite the very short chapters – isn’t designed to be a quick one. However, in many ways, I think it’s an essential one. Psychosis is hugely misunderstood and very common, affecting at least 1% of the population at some point in their lives. This is one of the best depictions I’ve ever read. If you want to understand psychosis and start breaking down the stigma, this is a good place to start.
Overall, this is a highly recommended young adult book for teenagers and adults alike with an interest in psychology and mental illness.
Thanks so much to NetGalley and Walker Books for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review
Published by Walker Books
Paperback: 6th August 2020