There are many ways in which the “check brain” light illuminates, but here’s the screwed-up part; the driver can’t see it. It’s like the light is positioned in the backseat cup holder, beneath an empty can of Dr Pepper that’s been there for a month. No one sees it but the passengers—and only if they’re really looking for it, or when the light gets so bright and so hot that it melts the can, and sets the whole car on fire.
Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman

I’m a long-time fan of Neal Shusterman’s writing. I’ve seen the buzz surrounding and the praise lavished on Challenger Deep. But neither of those things prepared me for how truly excellent it would be.

In case there’s someone else out there who hasn’t read it yet—although I wouldn’t be all that surprised to discover that I was the last—I’ll take a stab at describing it. It’s about Caden Bosch and about Challenger Deep, the deepest spot in the already-deep Mariana Trench. It’s about how his anxiety turns to voices in his head turns to a need to follow any instruction he reads. It’s about how he stops eating, stops sleeping, stops seeing the world around him the same way that his peers and his family do.

Or, well, it’s not a difference in seeing, but a matter of perception and belief:

Don Quixote—the famous literary madman—fought windmills. People think he saw giants when he looked at them, but those of us who’ve been there know the truth. He saw windmills, just like everyone else—but he believed they were giants. The scariest thing of all is never knowing what you’re suddenly going to believe.

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Put simply, Challenger Deep brings us through the onset of Caden’s schizophrenia from the inside—we see the world as he does, understand it as he interprets it—and then through his time at Seaview Hospital, as his doctors try to find the right combination of medication and therapy to help him. If you go in cold, it’ll take some time to get your sea legs—sometimes Caden’s surroundings feel familiar and realistic (home, school, even the ward), and at others, we see the world as he interprets it through an internal filter (a pirate ship)—Shusterman switches between the two without warning, but at some point, they begin to blend. That blending—the two worlds together, both casts of characters, and then the near-solidity of the “real” world—feels seamless, in that I almost didn’t notice it as it was happening.

I’ve read a lot of books set in psych wards, but this one reads as an original. A good part of that, of course, is due to Shusterman’s ability to make whatever reality he writes about become the reality of the reader. But part of it, too, could be due to Shusterman’s proximity to the topic: his Author’s Note talks about his own family’s—and particularly his son’s—experience with mental illness, with being hospitalized, the process of finding the right medication, and all of the emotion and confusion and fear that was wrapped up in the process.

Challenger Deep is very much about Caden’s journey, but we get glimpses of the worry and pain and love and hope felt by his family and friends, too. Both in the story itself and in his Author’s Note, Shusterman is upfront about the fact that Caden’s condition isn’t curable—and he’s honest about the possibility of suicide—but he also stresses management, and the possibility of escaping the abyss.

In addition to running a library in rural Maine, Leila Roy blogs at Bookshelves of Doom, is a contributor at Book Riot, hangs out on Twitter a lot—possibly too much—and watches a shocking amount of television. Her cat is a murderer.