Blog Tour/Guest Post/Giveaway: Phantom Limbs by Paula Garner
How do you move on from an irreplaceable loss? In a poignant debut, a sixteen-year-old boy must learn to swim against an undercurrent of grief—or be swept away by it.
Otis and Meg were inseparable until her family abruptly moved away after the terrible accident that left Otis’s little brother dead and both of their families changed forever. Since then, it’s been three years of radio silence, during which time Otis has become the unlikely protégé of eighteen-year-old Dara—part drill sergeant, part friend—who’s hell-bent on transforming Otis into the Olympic swimmer she can no longer be. But when Otis learns that Meg is coming back to town, he must face some difficult truths about the girl he’s never forgotten and the brother he’s never stopped grieving. As it becomes achingly clear that he and Meg are not the same people they were, Otis must decide what to hold on to and what to leave behind. Quietly affecting, this compulsively readable debut novel captures all the confusion, heartbreak, and fragile hope of three teens struggling to accept profound absences in their lives.
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The storyline focuses heavily on the aspect of grief and death, how it affects you, consumes you, and how to cope with it. Where did you find the strength and inspiration to write such raw but poignant emotions?
I grew up with a ghost. I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t really understand it until my firstborn child was three years old. By then my mother had been dead for years already. And her first child had been dead for over thirty years.
Stevie. A baby adopted on the black market. He had profound cerebral palsy—he was never able even to lift his head. Things were different in those days. He didn’t get any special care. My godmother once told me that my parents were in denial about him, that they insisted he was just a late developer. But all three of his years, my mother carried him everywhere, fed him, did literally everything for him. Then, one morning, she went into his room and found him dead.
My mother was older: in her forties when I was adopted a handful of years later. She had an illness that wasn’t diagnosed until I was ten—lupus. She was in and out of hospitals and nursing homes during my middle school and high school years. Pain was her constant companion, and she was desperately unhappy. She had no friends, and she never left the house apart from medical things. I lacked a feeling of connection to her, of closeness, of bonding, which (in the way kids do), I was sure must be my fault—I wasn’t what she wanted in an adopted child, I was somehow inadequate. I realize now that she was deeply depressed. There are photo albums of her from when she was young—before she was married—and she was beautiful—ravishing, even. Mischievous and smiling and confident and always surrounded by a flock of men. I would page through those albums for hours, trying to “see” my mother in that woman.
I never could.
She died when I was in my early twenties, and the thing she kept asking near the end—“How much longer?”—seemed a metaphor for her life the entire time I knew her. It wasn’t until I had a child of my own that I could even begin to comprehend her grief. Stevie’s death had broken her. And there was no help for her, no support. By the time I understood enough to grieve with her over her loss, it was years too late.
In Phantom Limbs, a family suffers the loss of a small child—a loss that colors everything for all of them, for the rest of their lives. My blind, secondhand experience of grief showed me that there is no time limit on it—it is not a thing you do and then you are done. The loss of a child is unspeakable—and frankly it is the last thing I ever thought I would be capable of writing. And yet I spent all these years in Phantom Limbs doing just that.
But writing this novel was not so much about finding strength and inspiration as it was that very human compulsion to pull at the threads of the shadowy, scary stuff in hopes of illumination—or at least of better understanding things (ourselves, others, life itself). It gave me the opportunity to vicariously process that kind of loss and its endless trajectory—both so I could better understand the effect such a loss had on my own life, and maybe also to rewrite a more hopeful ending for Otis and his family.
In some ways, I suppose it also was an homage to my mother—an effort to understand her, a belated expression of sympathy and compassion, and a quest to make peace with a relationship that was never quite as it should have been.
Paula Garner spends most of her time making food, drinks, and narratives, despite being surrounded by an alarming TBR pile and a very bad cat. Her debut YA novel, Phantom Limbs, comes out from Candlewick in 2016. Paula is represented by Molly Jaffa of Folio Lit, and lives in the Chicago area with her family.
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