The Selfless Act Of Breathing by JJ Bola is a novel that tracks the protagonist, Michael Kabongo, during a critical period in his depression. He is a British-Congolese teacher who finds himself questioning what his life is worth during a time of hopelessness. Struggling with his father’s death, faith and his identity, he takes his life savings out of his account and plans to live his dreams until he’s out of cash- then end it. Travelling with Michael across states and back and forth through time, the reader gets on with him and you can feel how sad and vulnerable he is.
If the idea of a man who is only willing to live as long as his travel budget allows sounds desperate- that’s because it is. The Selfless Act Of Breathing questions finds Michael questioning not only whether his own life is worth living for – really, he’s also asking what his life means to the people who love him. His Mum, his friends, his students, the women he might love.
Significantly, Michael is battling with feeling that he belongs no where. As an immigrant and son of refugees, the lines defining his identity are blurry. He doesn’t really feel welcome in the UK while knowing he could not return to Congo. His travels in the US even highlight his otherness as a novelty. He struggles with his faith, which his mother expected to be inherited from her. True to the form of a man who is contemplating death, he constantly interrogates every aspect of his own character. In Michael, the pastor, Duwayne and Jalil, JJ Bola shows different aspects of masculinity and expectations of society. It’s important that we see the different cultures you would come across at a London school as well how little is invested in the progression of working class black and brown children
I thought JJ Bola wrote women well- although many did tend to be romantic interests. They were multi-dimensional in values and outlook, with a range of personalities. His friendship with Jalil gave a glimpse into expectations of marriage in Muslim families and I liked how his girlfriend stood her ground.
We really do need more books like this. A first hand perspective of a young Black man in London going through depression alone. Feeling suicidal alone- while also having a wealth of friends around him. Even though he has a seemingly promising future ahead of him. JJ Bola writes Michael’s vulnerability very well and I genuinely felt sad for the protagonist as the story progressed. It is not my favorite emotion! But the feeling of falling deeper and deeper into hopelessness really translated. Do read with care as bereavement and suicidal thoughts are prominent. This is worth a read even just for how well the perspective on mental health and black masculinity is communicated. Another book that does this well is Derek Owusu’s That Reminds me
Believable dialogue and Michael’s depleting cash levels kept my attention
There are some beautiful sentences and the dialogue is very nuanced and believable! I loved how the ending was written, it was quite lyrical and really stood out for me. Sharing Michael’s depleting funds at critical points held my attention- the reader knows what is expected when he runs out of funds . Travelling back and forth in time and across continents also was engaging . They made a potentially slow paced book quite tense. I did enjoy reading this. I wasn’t blown away by it but would be really interested to see more of the writing aspects I loved in The Selfless Act Of Breathing- most of which I have mentioned in this review. I think there could be a lot to be explored in JJ Bola’s writing style in future so I will be looking out for his next book.
For more books by Black British writers currently in my reading list, check here
The Selfless Act Of Breathing by JJ Bola published by Dialogue Books 2021