Published by Harper Collins, HarperTeen on April 21, 2015
Pages: 320 pages
Amazon • Indiebound • Barnes & Noble • 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.
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 » The ending in particular really worked for me here. While Caden, with the help of medication and psychiatric intervention, becomes well enough to return home, I liked that the novel resists finding a cure for Caden. He says, “[The captain] will always be waiting, I realize. He will never go away. And in time, I may find myself his first mate whether I want to or not, journeying to points exotic so that I might make another dive, and another, and another. … No sense in denying that such things happen. But it’s not going to happen today – and there is a deep, abiding comfort in that. Deep enough to carry me through till tomorrow.” « Hide 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?
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.