4 out of 5 stars.
I was given an ARC of this work.
This review may contain some spoilers.
This was a radical departure from everything else I have ever read of Neal Shusterman’s. Instead of being heavily science fiction, this is the story of a boy, Caden, who is struggling with severe mental illness, probably some sort of combination of schizophrenia and bipolar. Shusterman actually based a lot of the book on his son’s descriptions of his own battle with this type of illness, which gives the work an authenticity it would otherwise lack.
The story bounces between three main realities: what Caden is experiencing in the “real world”, what Caden is experiencing in the plastic white room (his experience of medical treatment), and Caden’s experience of a ship voyaging out to the deepest part of the Mariana Trench.
The ship sequences, as far as I can tell, are a parallel interpretation of Caden’s daily life. Despite being very nonsensical at times, it was an interesting challenge to try and draw parallels between one reality and another.
It is extremely easy to feel sympathy from Caden right from the start. You can really see him struggling with a growing sense of paranoia and panic, and trying to reconcile what he knows is rational with what other centres of his brain are screaming at him. The book comes across as a jumbled mix of different sensory impressions and realities, but that is probably pretty accurate for someone who is outright hallucinating. It is scary and disorienting, so if that is what life is like for someone with schizophrenia, you can really sympathize.
Shusterman’s portrayal of the medical help that Caden receives is balanced between good and bad. Caden’s body and brain are put through the wringer as his psychiatrist struggles to find the right combination of drugs to manage his symptoms and Caden’s stay at a mental health ward of a hospital is tedious and he has to be restrained several times. On the other hand, he is able to make connections with other teens that struggle with the same difficulties and the staff are shown as caring and doing the best they can against illnesses we still do not entirely understand.
This book is pretty heartbreaking in sections, but I really enjoyed it. Mental Illness does not get all the serious attention it deserves in the media, so it is wonderful to see a popular author writing something so sympathetic and, hopefully, accurate about a disorder that is often blamed for criminal violence.