Caden Bosch is a normal fifteen year old. A little geeky, a good artist. He’s sarcastic and witty and fun to be around. But he’s falling apart. He thinks the kid at school, the one he passes in the corridor and doesn’t know, is going to kill him. His parents may not be who they say they are. He starts to hear voices that tell him to do things he doesn’t want to do…
This is a difficult book to rate. As a work of fiction, I would rate this quite low, perhaps 2/5. The story drags a little at times, and Caden’s relationships are muddy and ill-defined in places.
But here’s the thing: This isn’t a work of fiction, as Shusterman says in the notes at the end. This is a semi-fictional biography of his son and his declining mental health. I’ve never read a book on schizophrenia before, so there’s no baseline. There’s nothing to say, “Compared to ‘X’ this is better or worse.” I’m not an expert on how accurate it is, so I can’t rate it on that.
I misted up a few times while I was reading it. I also laughed out loud in others. But, my god, Caden’s parents – and by extension, Shusterman - must have felt so helpless. You can only cry with them, as powerless as they are as they watch their son dissolve.
Running alongside Caden’s story is a wider symbolic journey he’s taking on a sailing ship, crewed with representations of the people around him in the real world. He knows where he’s going – The Marianas Trench – but he doesn’t know how long it will take him, or why he’s on the ship in the first place. It’s a personal journey of discovery and revelation, of choices and friendships. No spoilers, but not everyone makes it – in the real world and on his journey. Sometimes people get lost on those oceans and never make landfall again.
Most terrifying of all is when Caden is at the depths of his illness. His journey and reality blur together, without transition or warning. It’s jarring enough that we as readers have to check again where we think he should be. He undergoes dissociation for a few chapters, referring to himself in the third person (“You look at your sister”, not “I look at my sister”). He is, in literal terms, out of his mind.
I didn’t know much beyond the barest layman’s knowledge of schizophrenia when I started this book. People hearing voices, I thought, and that was it. I didn’t know about the other symptoms: the growing paranoia, the mania, the dissociative personality. The closest I could come as an analogy would be the engine of Caden’s brain is red-lining at 4000 RPM and won’t slow down even if he could turn it off. I learned things from this story.
I have a feeling that this was made with slow and deliberate care, an intense desire to get it right. I wonder how many times Shusterman had to stop writing so he could stop crying. I certainly had to when I was reading it.
Neal Shusterman didn’t write this book for the reviews, or the money it’s making him. He wrote it because he had to, and he wrote it so it helps someone else understand.
And like the best of stories, it worked.