Halifax author and artist Ben Stephenson, whose short stories have been published in The Coast and elsewhere, branches out with a debut novel. Featuring some of Stephenson’s own artwork, A Matter of Life and Death or Something is not a typical, linear piece of fiction. The novel features a swirling narrative that moves between three distinct yet oddly similar perspectives: precocious 10-year-old Arthur, adopted and unsure of his place in the world; the confused writings in a mysterious journal Arthur finds in the woods; and the personified woods themselves. While ambitious, Stephenson’s approach is not entirely successful.
During one of his daily rambles in the woods behind his house, Arthur, the homeschooled only child of a single dad, stumbles upon a faded composition notebook hidden under some leaves. The notebook turns
out to contain the musings of a sad and distressed young man identified only as Phil. The journal’s contents, and the way it abruptly ends on page 43, spark in Arthur a need to discover who Phil is and what happened to him.
Arthur’s investigation becomes entwined with his own quest for identity and a sense of belonging. An inventive child, Arthur spends much time imagining what his “real dad” might be doing and creating fantastical stories of his adventures. These imaginings are not too distant from Phil’s creative and seemingly bewildered journal entries.
While the voices of Arthur and Phil belong to two very different characters, there are certain places in the novel where they become confused: Phil sounds juvenile and Arthur overly mature. Arthur, though apparently academically advanced, has a vocabulary that does not quite fit his character, while Phil, who is clearly disturbed, engages in moments of crystalline lucidity that don’t quite ring true.
Whether this confusion is by design or not, it proves a jarring element in an otherwise captivating story.