High-schooler Caden starts having more and more moments that are not quite right, moments he is fairly sure aren’t reality but still seem to make sense in his mind. It’s not for a while (particularly painful for readers, who know what’s going on) that his family and others realize he needs professional help, landing him in a psychiatric hospital for teens.
There, he spends weeks under the care of a doctor and therapists, reality blending with the delusion that he’s on a ship traveling to “Challenger Deep,” where he must reach the bottom of a seven-mile-deep trench to somehow fulfill his destiny (the details are hazy for Caden and for readers).
Readers are in Caden’s mind with him, going back and forth between the ship and the hospital ward, yet they still can see the progress he makes — slowly — as drug combinations are adjusted and readjusted to find a good mix to help him return to reality. Caden struggles with the issues common to many others in his situation: the isolation, the numbness and confusion, the desire to not be on medication, the fear of never making it out of there. And the whole story serves as a perfect window into what it’s like to be plunged into the abyss of mental illness.
The book is powerful, the symbols of Caden’s delusions and their meanings all deceptively simply spun into a tale-within-a-tale and wrapped up perfectly in the end. This book could have foundered in less skilled hands, but Neal Shusterman has the chops to make this brilliant.
Shusterman writes in an author’s note at the end that his own son “journeyed to the deep” and with his help, he’s “tried to capture what that descent was like.” He also points out the reality that helping people who are dealing with mental illness “is not an exact science, but it’s all we have – and it gets better every day as we learn more about the brain, and the mind, and as we develop better, more targeted medication.” I can’t say enough positive things about this novel, about what it can do to raise awareness through a wonderfully crafted story.
Rated: Mild, for occasional use of moderate language and a few very brief sexual references.