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Her Fine Eyes

Caustic reviews of YA books I adore. 

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Challenger Deep

Challenger Deep - Brendan Shusterman, Neal Shusterman

***Note: this review assumes that you've read the book.***


One-sentence summary: One of the best young-adult novels I've read so far this year, if not the best.


CHALLENGER DEEP is impressive. The beauty of it--the masterfulness, for me--is in how accurate it is to mental illness while also being poetic--it's a novel, through and through, and takes exactly the right liberties that fiction should. In other hands, trying for "poetry" sometimes saccharine-izes and paradoxically belittles illness. CHALLENGER DEEP is brutal, while also being beautiful. The earliest chapters before the hospital are also especially strong in depicting Caden's un- and under-medicated decline.  

Depiction of mental illness. I'm not an expert in schizophrenia, but I suspect the way Mr. Shusterman chose to portray Caden's brain turning fantasy into reality is probably where the poetry (rather than strict medical accuracy) comes in. The parallels between Caden's delusions and the real world (the parrot being the doctor, for instance) had a very "narrative" structure, and I'm sure most delusions are more chaotic and would seem confusing to us. By definition they make sense and feel real to the person who is sick, but would be barely recognizable if non-schizophrenics could really see them. But since schizophrenics believe their hallucinatory thoughts do map into the real world, the narrative may be a closer approximation for "healthy" readers, rather than trying to represent what really goes on in Caden's head. 
What was great:
The Navigator's word associations were so powerful, and I suspect spot on: the fluid move from one thought to the other, and finding deep meaning in both the process and the final thought. Also, Hal's unraveling into parchment was exquisitely written.
I loved the way Mr. Shusterman separated the two stories--Caden's "real life" and his hallucinatory life--and then let them bleed into each other toward the end.
I thought that Caden shooting the parrot dead-on was incredibly dramatic and such a shocking moment in the book (because, obviously, we're rooting for the doctor).
Open-ended, bittersweet endings are my favorites. The end was designed to show us that you can't really cure mental illness, you can only manage it. Realism is probably also why Caden's friend Calli really stays out of touch, rather than showing up in some circular way at the end. 
What didn't work as well for me:
I thought there were two or three moments of Mr. Shusterman too obviously speaking through Caden, for example: "There is no such thing as a 'correct' diagnosis. There are only symptoms and catch phrases for various collections of symptoms."
And does that last quotation also explain why the word "schizophrenia" wasn't actually used in the text at all (correct me if I'm wrong)? It seems common for young-adult authors not to name their characters' mental illness, and I wonder if that's to give them more license to play with the facts, or to excuse inconsistencies. 
The real-life Captain felt a little too insignificant to have morphed into such a vital part of Caden's delusions. When we figured out Dr. Poirot was the Parrot, I was hoping that the Captain was simply the embodiment of Caden's illness (which he ultimately is), so I was a little disappointed to have a one-to-one mapping for the Captain, too. I talked myself out of that disappointment by wondering whether many schizophrenics might report having a small event like that in their childhood that they later identify as a pivotal moment. (Caden talks about this somewhat by saying that once you identify mental illness, you begin to look back on thought processes in your past that seemed fanciful or fantastical and wonder whether they were the first sign.) 
When Caden descends into Challenger Deep, what is happening in the real world to him? Clearly, the Captain (i.e. Caden's ill brain) wants to tempt him completely into a non-functional state, even to tempt him into death. But unexpectedly for the reader, Caden's visit to Challenger Deep--the lowest he can go--is somehow a turnaround moment for him. It seems to become the road to recovery because Poirot/Parrot--despite being just a featherless cadaver [i.e. a rejected advisor in real life]--breaks through to him in that moment. Yet I didn't think it was clear why Poirot was able to break through. If it all depends on the chocolate coins--Caden's recognition that they're from his childhood, and thus can't be "real" under the ocean--is that a powerful enough fact to pull him through to reality? It seems to tie in with a previous scene: Caden asks Poirot whether his mother, who is waiting in the visiting room, has a heel broken off her shoe. Poirot commends him for using reality checks to overrule his brain about what is not-real. I think the chocolate coins are meant to resonate with that--they are a proof of non-reality. But why Caden let the dead parrot "in" at that moment wasn't clear: is Mr. Shusterman intentionally showing us that improvement in health sometimes depends solely on luck? If so, I suppose that might fit in well with his message that recovering from serious mental illness is unpredictable. 
Hal's suicide was maybe just a little cliche. It's probably necessary in a book set in a hospital to show someone not making it--it wouldn't have been realistic otherwise. But it too conveniently precipitates changes in Caden's own situation (the firing of the swabbie, the new group counselor, the scolding of Poirot by the administration), and Caden's own falling apart. A smaller effect of Hal's suicide--i.e. forcing Caden to commit to this institution rather than move to another one--is, however, a somewhat interesting, non-cliche moment. 
The ending was awkward, with one last appearance of the Captain. I appreciate that Caden's story is open-ended, and I like the message that illness will always be a struggle, but I'm not sure I wanted to see the evidence of Caden's fragility via yet another hallucination of the Captain, in public, while he's with his family. I loved the way Caden seemed physically weak when he got home. I recall feeling that way after getting out of the hospital, or after a really bad flu. You're on the recovering end, as if you're back from a kind of death, and there's a feeble sort of joy in your new freedom, but you still feel like the world is too bright and strong for you. I thought Mr. Shusterman captured that well. Thus, returning to the Captain was somehow not as poetic a metaphor as it was in the rest of the book--it became an object, a device to tell us Caden's peace was fragile.  
Audiobook comments: 
The narration was a bit sloppy in the audiobook. The narrator, Michael Curran-Dorsano, is an actor, and tries to be impressive, but the overall result feels over-the-top, dramatically, and workman-like, technically. For instance, he recorded the whole book saying "Calliope" incorrectly, and then when the editor dropped in the corrections, they missed half of them. Mr. Curran-Dorsano mispronounced several other words. It also made no sense that many characters (the swabbie, the Navigator) had English accents when they became their "real-life" counterparts. Unless, I guess, we're to think Caden hears their voices that way because of his illness.
I hear there are illustrations in the print version of this book, drawn by Mr. Shusterman's son (who has schizophrenia). I'll have to sneak into a bookstore to look at them. But let me take this moment to beg publishers everywhere: when a book has illustrations, make them available online to audiobook listeners. Surely we have that technology, via an online access code or something.