The Captain is always watching, constantly there, even before the ship. Caden knows the Captain well and knows enough to both respect and fear him. As he spends more time on the ship, he also gets close to the parrot who is working to plot against the Captain and bring Caden onto his side. But at times the ship fades away and reality comes back to Caden. He realizes that he’s pushing friends away and becoming more and more alone in his life. He’s always been popular and had plenty of friends but his new oddness and the strange way his mind is working keeps them at a distance. As the ship approaches the deepest part of the ocean, others join the crew, teens who have their own roles on the ship, those who navigate and those who look into the future. As Caden begins to get the treatment he needs for the voices in his head, these are revealed as the other patients around him. Caden has to journey across the dark sea alone, figure out who is on his side, and hopefully come out the other side alive. It’s a journey through a mind that is fighting an internal chemical battle against itself but it is also a journey of brilliance and beauty.
Shusterman writes from experience about the impact a mentally-ill teen can have on a family. His own son battles mental illness and the illustrations throughout the novel are ones that his son did as he got treatment. The book is raw and stunning in its depiction of the vivid world that schizophrenia can create, the voices making sense in this alternate reality of captains, parrots, ships and crewmen. There are moments of breathtaking clarity, where the deception is swept clear and the reader sees what had been clouded before. It is in these moments that the power of mental illness is striking and blazing bright. And then the clouds descend again and the fiction takes over the brain.
Shusterman writes a brave story here, one that doesn’t try to explain the fictions of the mind, but instead allows readers to ride the waves of paranoia and delusion along with Caden. Caden himself is a character that is so caught up in the throes of mental illness that one realizes that the battle all along has been for himself and his own survival. Shusterman plays with perspective, changing the narration from first person to second person and back again. It’s disarming and wild, something that readers may not notice at first, except as a strange jarring that slowly builds. It’s a very smart use of perspective, creating its own jittery feel for the reader.
A journey through mental illness, this book for teens speaks to the hope that treatment brings but also the hard work that it takes to leave the world of the mind behind and enter reality again. Appropriate for ages 13-16.
Reviewed from digital galley received from Edelweiss and HarperCollins.