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Spotlight: Challenger Deep - Neal Schusterman


Genre: Young Adult, Mental Health Published: Harper Collins, April 2015 No Rating

"Dead kids are put on pedestals, but mentally ill kids get hidden under the rug.”


Challenger Deep is a very unique novel about sinking to the depth of mental illness, and finding you way back to the surface. It is one of only two books this year where I’ve abstained from putting a star rating on it, despite having very clear thoughts about it. This was deliberate for two reasons: Firstly, I know that some people will not read full reviews, and just browse the star ratings. This is perfectly fine, but in this case I think it would give the wrong impression, so I’d rather people read my words, instead of just look at a crude one-to-five number. Secondly, and more importantly: rating a book will inevitably lead to comparisons to other books. Due to the extremely personal nature of this novel, I feel that wouldn’t be appropriate here.


Neal Schusterman made a name for himself as a talented fantasy author with his Arc of a Scythe series. This is nothing like that. It’s braver, more personal and more intimate than any of his other work, and its one that perhaps is best enjoyed with a little background information. Challenger Deep is an exploration of schizophrenia from the inside out, where the authors personal connection to the story he tells is palpable. Shusterman’s very familiar with this disease, as one of his good friends, as well as his son suffer from it. In many ways, I don’t think this book would have been the same if this wasn’t the case, and in this lies much of its beauty. One of the greatest things about this novel was the level of passion and compassion on the authors part. Both our protagonist Caden, as well as the author on a more meta-level, are trying to make sense of their situation and form the chaos of their reality in a coherent narrative. Watching this struggle (on page and outside) hit hard for me as a reader, especially knowing how rooted this was in real life. I can only imagine how emotional, but only therapeutic this must have been to write for Schusterman, but also to read for his family and by extension: readers in similar situations.

The personal nature of this novel also means this won’t be for everybody. Good representation of such a personal experience as mental illness will always be different in the eyes of every individual who reads this. While this novel will resonate with some people and their personal experiences, others will have different ones and feel disconnected. Personally, there were various moments where I felt disconnected from the story. The novel is written in a somewhat jumpy, sometimes almost incoherent style which can be very confusing to the reader. Whilst this style very skillfully mirrors the typical manner of thoughts of someone during a schizophrenic episode, it was often a bit alienating to me, and made it hard to connect to the characters. In an interesting and almost ironic twist, the form of thinking and telling, stands in the way of the content at times. (I say ironic, as this is often also the case in communicating with a patient with schizophrenia). I can’t be sure if this was a deliberate choice on the authors part or not, but for me, it did hinder my connection to the story a little. The same incoherence could be argued for the structure: the novel doesn’t have a traditional clear beginning, middle and end. Instead it just seems to wave and flow. Again: I’m not sure I can fault it for that though. It certainly isn’t like most other books, possibly because is wasn’t written with the primary goal of publication in mind.


Which brings me back full circle to the fact that I can’t rate this novel like others: it simply feels to personal. From the compassion towards all characters, to the authors note, to the inclusion of drawings by Schustermans son (which arguably only a father can love)… Challenger Deep is packed to the brim with beautiful symbolism, hope and confusion, warmth and fear but most importantly: a lot of fatherly love. Although it may not be perfect on a technical level, Challenger Deep is a story that is still often on my mind, even months after finishing it.


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