Challenger Deep: Review

May 20, 2015 2015, 4 star books, contemporary, Layla 17 ★★★★

Challenger Deep: ReviewChallenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Published by Harper Collins, HarperTeen on April 21, 2015
Genres: contemporary
Pages: 320 pages
Format: ARC
Source: Publisher
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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.

Challenger Deep is a difficult book to read, but it’s worth it.

I’ve been excited about Challenger Deep since I heard Neal Shusterman and his son, Brendan, speak about it at NCTE and ALAN. They both spoke pretty openly about the family’s experience with mental illness, and also mentioned that some of the artwork Brendan had created during his illness had been incorporated into the final novel. I’ve been really interested in seeing what the book would look like since then. More complex representations of mental illness can only be a good thing when it comes to YA lit, and I’m happy to say that Challenger Deep absolutely satisfies on that count.

Challenger Deep takes the form of two alternating narratives: Caden Bosch’s day-to-day life with his friends and family, which is becoming increasingly disrupted by his mental illness, and his other life as the artist-in-residence aboard a ship. The ship is headed for the Marianas Trench and Challenger Deep, the deepest known point in the ocean, where monsters (presumably) guard all the world’s treasure. The novel goes back and forth between these two timelines, and at first, there’s no seeming connection between Caden Bosch’s two lives. We see Caden go to school, find patterns in his math exam, and worry that his classmates are plotting to kill him. Onboard the ship, he runs back and forth to combat the rocking of the waves; watches rogue brains scurry like rats across the deck; and tracks the voyage to Challenger Deep through art. Other than Caden’s artwork, there doesn’t seem to be any overlap between the two stories.

I know that the narrative style and structure of the story probably aren’t going to work for everyone. There’s a basic plot, but the story is more about the experience of mental illness than it is a series of events. Additionally, the story is mostly told in a non-linear fashion – alternating between Caden’s doubled accounts. These things didn’t bother me a whit, though (and by “they didn’t bother me” I mean “I loved them.”). I liked Shusterman’s rejection of a linear narrative and thought the narrative style was a much more interesting attempt to capture Caden’s experience of his own consciousness. There’s this really important moment in the text, too, when the narrative shifts from a first-person account to a second-person account (which, you know, is not used all that frequently in story-telling). I liked the impact of that narrative choice; it’s at a moment when Caden loses himself, feeling like he is “moving through everything around me at lightning speed” and realizing that “there is no longer an ‘I’ anymore. Just the collective ‘we’ and it takes my breath away.” And by the end of the novel, you’re able to read both narratives together and through each other (and they start bleeding into each other, too).

Challenger Deep is really full of moments like this – attempts to represent an experience of mental illness through experimentation with literary form – and I loved that about this book. (It was by and large my favorite part of this book, in case you can’t tell.) I generally like having my expectations (for what a book should look like, for how to tell a story) being challenged and unsettled, and this book does that so well, you all. In addition to really loving the way Shusterman chooses to tell this particular story, I’m so glad that he tells this story because it’s an important one. I really like that the novel tries to tell an emotionally honest story that manages to be realistic and hopeful. View Spoiler »

Another aspect of Challenger Deep that I really liked was the inclusion of Brendan Shusterman’s artwork. I’m admittedly not much of a visual person (my sister usually has to talk me through any art gallery we visit), so that’s saying something. But I liked them – I liked the challenge to think about the connections between what I was reading and what was being represented visually in the text, and it forced me to see the story differently, if that makes sense.

All in all, Challenger Deep is very much worth your time. Go read it, go read it! It’s funny and creepy (brains scuttling like rats! ahh!) and profoundly moving and so very interesting. Has anyone else read this yet? If so, what did you think?

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An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.

17 Responses to “Challenger Deep: Review”

  1. Anne

    I am just starting the book, an audiobook and I am completely confused. I need to read a review that would help me understand the experience I am having with the book. Thank you. This is helpful. I am going to find the print edition so I can look at the illustrations and note the way the book is put together.
    Anne recently posted…Snapshot Saturday, 4th of July

  2. Thomas

    Wonderful review! I agree that this book has an experimental quality to it; if someone comes into it expecting a linear storyline, they will most likely be disappointed. However, as you have touched on eloquently in this post, mental illness is rarely a straightforward experience, and Shusterman captures that well through this book. I am curious about how younger teens or teens with less exposure to mental illness (and schizoaffective disorder is pretty far from depression/suicide, topics more regularly touched upon in YA) will perceive this novel.
    Thomas recently posted…Why I Write The Quiet Voice: Thomas’s Twentieth Birthday Edition

  3. Lori T

    I’m such a big fan of Neal’s UNWIND dystology. Such an amazing series! So, I’m always up to read anything new by him. Thanks for the review!

  4. Glaiza

    I love stories that experiment with time and narration. I’m definitely moving this up the TBR because it sounds different from Shusterman’s previous YA books.
    Glaiza recently posted…Rat Queens Volume 2

  5. Karen

    I skimmed your review because I have this book for review. I’m always nervous to read books like this – most authors don’t do these subjects justice so I’m glad to read how much you enjoyed it.

    • Layla

      I feel kind of anxious about the representation of mental illness in YA books sometimes, so I get that. (And have had a few problems with stuff I’ve read recently – insta-cure! dying and inspiring someone else to live! no therapeutic or psychiatric interventions considered!) But like, I think this does a good job of striking a balance – it felt very realistic to me, and I also like that it acknowledges that this is just kinda one story out of many. And it felt like a collaborative effort b/w Shusterman and his son, which seemed good to me, too. That said, I don’t have experience w/ this character’s particular diagnosis, so I’d be open to different interpretations of this one.
      Layla recently posted…Uprooted: Review Discussion

  6. Carina Olsen

    Gorgeous review Layla :D I’m so glad you liked this book a lot. The cover looks so gorgeous. And you are making this book sound amazing. It seems a bit heartbreaking. Yet I think it seem awesome too. Might read it one day :D Thank you for sharing about it sweetie. <3 Yay for the ending being realistic and good :)
    Carina Olsen recently posted…Cover Reveal: Riders by Veronica Rossi

    • Layla

      I mean, it’s all of those things: amazing, heartbreaking in places, and really, really awesome. The cover’s fascinating, and if you’re a visual person, you might also enjoy the artwork that accompanies the book. I loooooved it. And yeah! I mean, I liked that the ending acknowledged that for this particular character, he’s better than he was at the start, but he’s not like magically cured or anything. It’s a good read. If you ever feel like reading it, do!
      Layla recently posted…Uprooted: Review Discussion

  7. Valerie

    Yes I’m glad you liked it! I kind of got confused by the nonlinear “series of events”, but I loved how the experience was SO ACCURATE. That’s really cool that you went to his talk! And his son was there as well! Wow!
    Valerie recently posted…DNF Review: Hold Me Like A Breath

    • Layla

      The talk was really great! I actually got to see him twice – he spoke once at NCTE, without his son, and then at ALAN, he and his son were on a panel together (the conferences take place back to back). And it was really interesting to hear them speak about the process of coming to write this book – apparently he’d had the title in his head for awhile after Brendan worked on a school project about Challenger Deep, but he never found quite the right story for it. I’m glad they told this one.
      Layla recently posted…Uprooted: Review Discussion

  8. Caroline

    I was so blown away by this book. I have read the Unwind series, and so when I saw this I bought it without doing any research into it. When I started reading I was so confused, but the writing was so amazing that I didn’t even think about putting it down. Then after about the first 40 pages things started to make sense to me and I was amazed again at how well Shusterman was able to envelope us in the downward spiral of Caden. It was a hard book to read, like you said, but it was so moving and I feel like I understand now a little more of what people with mental illness suffer.
    Caroline recently posted…Feeling a bit Stuck

    • Layla

      I know. I liked the Unwind series a whole lot, and although it’s very different, I still really enjoyed it. (I’d probably still start folks off with Unwind if they wanted a good Shusterman book, though, because I looooove that book.) Anyway. I’m glad you felt similarly! And yeah, the book is pretty disorienting in the beginning, but very much in a way that makes sense, I think. (And in a way that becomes more and more clear as you continue to read.) A hard read, but a good one.
      Layla recently posted…Uprooted: Review Discussion

    • Layla

      Ooh. I might start with Unwind, actually – it’s one of my favorite series to teach (and it’s a book that my students respond to really, really well). The premise is: following conflict over reproductive rights, both sides choose a compromise that prohibits abortion but allows for retroactive abortions between the ages of 13-18 (this is called “unwinding”). The story follows three kids who are on their way to being unwound for different (and complicated) reasons.
      Layla recently posted…Challenger Deep: Review

    • Layla

      I think Shusterman does a good job with this – it seems like he waited until his son was in a better place to begin working on the book with him. He does make a point of articulating that this is just one experience of mental illness (rather than a representative account) and notes that even folks with similar diagnoses have different experiences / need different treatments. It is a hard thing to write well, but I do think he tries and succeeds in some measure, and I liked that he incorporated his son’s experiences into the book. If you do ever choose to pick it up, let me know what you think?
      Layla recently posted…Challenger Deep: Review