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Fiction Literary

Matter of Life and Death or Something

by (author) Ben Stephenson

Douglas & McIntyre
Initial publish date
Feb 2012
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Feb 2012
    List Price

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Short-listed for the International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award.

The big-hearted story of a ten-year-old boy, a notebook and the meaning of the universe.

Even though he's only ten years old, Arthur Williams knows lots of things for sure. He knows all about trilobites, and bridge, and that he doesn't want to be Victoria Brown's boyfriend, and that tapping maple trees causes them excruciating pain. He knows his real dad is probably flying a hot-air balloon across the Pacific, or paving a city with moss. And he knows that Simon, the guy who pretends to be his dad, does absolutely nothing interesting. But when Arthur finds a weather-worn notebook in the woods behind his house, all he has are questions. Why was its author, Phil, so sad, and why does it end on page 43? Suddenly, there are other questions too: Why do people abandon people? Why do they abandon themselves?

Arthur embarks on a top-secret investigation to find out who Phil is -- or was. But getting straight answers from grown-ups is impossible, and before long, the only thing he knows for sure is that everything he thought he knew about life is probably wrong and that what he has to do is ten times bigger than what he can do.

Told through a trio of voices: the wildly imaginative and perpetually awkward Arthur, Phil's manic journal and the forest that watches them both, Ben Stephenson's debut novel is a heartbreaking story of love, death and the unspeakable pain of being small.

A Matter of Life and Death Or Something marks the exciting debut of an inventive and gifted storyteller.

About the author

A flourishing member of the Halifax literary scene, Ben Stephenson's short stories have appeared in The Coast and the anthology Rememberer. He has completed writing residencies at the Tatamagouche Centre and the Banff Centre. His visual art, including sculpture and installation, has been exhibited in various galleries. Some of his own artwork illustrates A Matter of Life and Death or Something. Stephenson grew up in New Brunswick and has lived on both coasts of Canada. He continues to live in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Ben Stephenson's profile page


  • Short-listed, International IMPAC DUBLIN Literary Award

Editorial Reviews

"Ben Stephenson's debut novel is intimate, overwhelming and personal."

The Coast

"The novel features a swirling narrative that moves between three distinct yet oddly similar perspectives...[a] captivating story."

Quill & Quire

"A Matter of Life and Death is subtle, imaginative, and touching."

Georgia Straight

"...Through these three distinct, yet brilliantly overlapping voices, Stephenson weaves an interesting tale...Stephenson's novel is ambitious and it asks more questions than it attempts to answer, a fact that will no doubt frustrate some readers, but in this respect he's successfully replicated what it feel like to be alive..."

"I still find myself smiling as I remember parts of the book and feeling a fondness for young Arthur"

The Literary Word

"Arthur is truly the novel's best feature. He's annoying yet undeniably endearing. He has the charm and sassiness of a Roald Dahl character -- think of the unnamed boy from The Witches or the title character in James and the Giant Peach."

Winnipeg Free Press

"With a small cast of characters, a notebook, a scattering of illustrations...and a startling ability to get into the head of a 10-year-old and a distressed young adult, Ben Stephenson has created a novel that covers the vast range of human emotion. Everything works together seamlessly to show that as Arthur tries to find out about Phil, he also finds about himself."

Vancouver Sun

"...In a whimsical move, the chapters narrated by Phil and Arthur are intersected by brief observations by the trees in the forest, which bear witness to each character�s actions: 'In the wind we whisper secrets -- it is true. We speak it all softly and simply, as human mothers send promises through the tiny ears of their little ones.' Stephenson admits to a romantic view of nature that provides artistic inspiration..."

Chronicle Herald

"...It's a heartbreaking, heartwarming, beautiful, funny, and imaginative offering. This book! I thought last night when I finished. This gorgeous gem of a book! Why isn't Ben Stephenson on everyone's list?"

Bella's Bookshelves

"Ben Stephenson takes us down the rabbit hole into the refracted and hilarious world of a child on a very serious quest. A Matter of Life and Death or Something will leave you less grown up -- and all the wiser for it. Curiouser and curiouser. A marvel of a book."

Jessica Grant, author of Come Thou, Tortoise

"Boy Wonder. Possibly the most notable novel to be released by a New Brunswick author this year...At just 24 years old, with little formal practice, Stephenson has achieved every writers' dream."


User Reviews

A Matter of Life and Death or Something

Arthur Williams is a ten year old boy who feels adrift in the universe. He lives with his adoptive father, Simon, and they see a lot of his confident, cheerful Aunt Max and her phobia-plagued husband, who incidentally is also called Max. Simon, Max, and Max make up Arthur’s entire social world; he is home-schooled, and spends all his free time in the forest near the house exploring, thinking about trilobites, and imagining the magnificent adventures his real father must be having somewhere else. One day, Arthur finds a journal buried under some leaves and begins to read about broken-hearted depressive named Phil. When the journal suggests a possible suicide, it unhinges Arthur. He sets off on a mission to discover what happened to Phil, and if Phil is still alive, to track him down and keep him in the land of the living. The quest, of course, is as much about Arthur as it is about Phil, and what Arthur doesn’t expect is that he saves himself along the way.

Stephenson shows a real gift for expressing his story through the curious and candid perspective of a young boy. A Matter of Life or Death or Something reminds us that asking the right questions is more important than finding the right answers, that we are enough as we are right now, and that there are many ways to belong. This book is beautiful and funny and true, and will undoubtedly appeal to readers who enjoyed Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, Jessica Grant’s Come, Thou Tortoise and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.

Please note that this review originally appeared on

Other titles by Ben Stephenson