Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman

Cover of the book Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman featuring the outline of an upside down head. The head is filled with the ocean and there is a lone scuba diver descending down into the deep. Image is to accompany the book review on the same page.

Caden Bosch is a high achieving, 15 year old, high school student. He lives at home with his mother, father and younger sister. He has friends he meets with after school on Fridays to design computer games.

Caden Bosch is on a ship headed for Challenger Deep, the deepest point on Earth in the southern part of the Marianas Trench. On board, his fellow crew mates largely keep to themselves, aware of the constant scrutiny of the ever-present captain and his scheming, treacherous parrot.

Challenger Deep is a moving and compelling journey of a teenager grappling with his mental health through increased paranoia, anxiety and depression. This story is so cleverly written by Neal Shusterman. Constantly moving between two worlds – Caden’s increasingly detached version of reality, and life onboard the pirate ship. The startling connections between the two worlds becomes apparent as the story unfolds and it serves to convey what it would be like to sail the dark, unpredictable waters of mental illness. As Caden’s disconnection from reality becomes more apparent, he is aware of the quiet concern from his family and friends. He reflects on the concern felt from his mother:

‘I feel her wave of worry like a patio heater – faint and ineffective, but constant.’

Caden Bosch, Challenger Deep (page 48)

The short, snappy chapters of one to three pages keep the reader’s thoughts jumping from one world to another, creating somewhat disoriented reading, perhaps to give the reader deeper insight into Caden’s increasingly scattered mind. As well as weaving a careful story of the two intertwining worlds, the reader also gets insights into Caden’s general observations on life. For a deeply serious subject, there is plenty of humour throughout the book and a few outrageous characters to provide light relief. 

I enjoyed an author chat with Neal Shusterman, courtesy of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ bookstore at West End, Brisbane. This is a deeply personal story for Shusterman, his own son having journeyed to the deep. In fact, the drawings and poetry scattered throughout Challenger Deep are his son’s own; all ‘drawn in the depths’, as Shusterman reflects in his Author’s Note. With Challenger Deep, Shusterman hopes to give reassurance and comfort to those struggling with mental illness and their families, and greater empathy and understanding of mental health for us all.

Published 2020 by Walker Books Australia, 320 pages.

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