Almost immediately after recording my podcast with JJ Bola, during which we discussed everything from the books he’d take to a desert island to why neither of us particularly like lending out our favourite books, I ordered a copy of his newest novel, The Selfless Act of Breathing. Such is the joy of the podcast, that I often feel like I know someone after chatting about books for upwards of an hour, and it’s always a true joy getting to read an author’s work in the wake of our recording. Even prior to reading JJ’s second novel, I put it to members of The Bondi Literary Salon as a suggestion for our first in-person meeting post-covid, and they all jumped at the chance. And so, when the book arrived, just in time for a rare rainy weekend in Sydney, I cleared my reading schedule to spend the weekend fully immersed in The Selfless Act of Breathing.
The Selfless Act of Breathing Book Review
As someone who lived in London for six years prior to moving down under, and having also lived in LA for three months a couple of years ago, I felt an easy familiarity with the novel – set between London, California and New York – as soon as I began.
A poignant tale that boasts beautiful prose and a nuanced take on lonliness and depression, The Selfless Act of Breathing is a tale that follows well-liked teacher, Michael Kabongo – as he struggles to find meaning in his day-to-day life in London, despite it appearing he has it all on the surface. Following a tragic event, he takes his life savings and leaves for America, the land of the free, to travel until his money runs out, and then he plans to die, praying then that he will finally be at peace.
The story is an often melancholy one – of dashed dreams, grief, masculinity, identity and – ultimately – hope. JJ writes in a beautifully lyrical manner, and it’s easy to see through his poetic prose that he’s a truly gifted wordsmith. An important read that looks at life through a fresh perspective, and offers readers a new lens through which to look at suicide ideation, depression and anxiety, The Selfless Act of Breathing is a hopeful tale of woe that will stay with readers long after the final page has been turned.
The Selfless Act of Breathing Summary
Transcendent Kingdom meets A Man Called Ove in this heartwarming novel about a Congolese-British Londoner who decides to go on one last adventure in the United States, determined to end his life once his savings run out.
As a charismatic teacher living in London, Michael Kabongo strives to alleviate the injustices he sees around him: for the students who long for better lives, in memory of his father’s tragic death, and to end the violent marginalization of Black men around the world.
But after a devastating loss, he decides to embark on an adventure in the land of the free—the United States of America. From Dallas to San Francisco, Michael parties with new friends, engages in fleeting romances, splurges on thrilling escapades, all with the intention of ending his life once all his savings run out.
As he makes surprising new connections and faces old prejudices in odd but exciting new settings, Michael alone must decide if his life is worth living after all…
I loved this interview with JJ: Our existence is political.
JJ Bola author bio
JJ Bola is an established writer, poet and UNHCR Ambassador. His three poetry collections – Elevate, Daughter of the Sun, and Word – were published in one collection, Refuge, which was read out in the House of Commons during Refugee week in 2018.
He was one of Spread the Word’s Flight Associates 2017 and a Kit de Waal Scholar for the Birkbeck University MA in Creative Writing. As a former refugee, JJ Bola was invited to the Davos Economic Forum 2018 and held a discussion with Cate Blanchett.
His debut novel, No Place to Call Home, was published in the UK in 2017, and in 2018 in North America. His non-fiction book Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined, which exposes masculinity as a socially conditioned performance, was published in the UK in 2019.
JJ speaks and performs both internationally and in the UK.
Other JJ Bola books
JJ Bola has written three collections of poetry – Elevate, Daughter of the Sun and Word – a non-fiction book called Mask Off: Masculinity Redefined, and a novel called No Place to Call Home.
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