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The Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola review – a traveller misses connection

·2-min read

Michael Kabongo is on the trip of a lifetime. He’s quit his job as an inner-city schoolteacher, bought a plane ticket to San Francisco, and is bent on burning through his savings as he presses onwards to Dallas, Chicago, New York City. Envious? Don’t be, because as soon becomes apparent, he is propelled not by wanderlust but by depression, and once he’s shared the real reason for his travels, his dwindling bank balance evokes all the more forcibly the fast-flowing grains of an hourglass.

Poet JJ Bola wrote about masculinity and mental health struggles in his 2019 nonfiction book Mask Off, and this incantatory second novel touches on his experiences too; on belonging (he arrived in the UK from war-riven Democratic Republic of the Congo as a child) and faith.

There’s the engulfing despair of a job that he no longer believes will make a difference

Throughout, third-person descriptions of Michael’s Stateside odyssey are spliced with first-person glimpses of the disconnected London existence that precipitated his departure. There’s the tower block in which he continues to live with his pious mother, the dead father he barely knew gazing out from framed photos. There’s a soul-crushing break-up and rifts with his two remaining friends. And there’s the engulfing despair of a job that he no longer believes will make a difference.

In the US, he tries to dodge human connection, but there are flirtations – a love affair, even – as well as existential chats with a homeless man, a cab driver, a mugger who calls to mind the students Michael has left behind. Bola’s ear for rhythm and cadence is sharp, and he lets characters soliloquise as if acing a poetry slam, their diction inflected with the street and the pulpit as they riff on cities, black history, police brutality.

If the novel’s lyricism sometimes feels over-honeyed (one particular sex scene finds Michael searching for the “jewel” in his lover’s “crown”), Michael himself remains enigmatic, keeping the reader alert. Near the end, Bola makes an interesting decision to skip a dramatic pivot point; though sure to irritate some, this imbues the book’s closing scene with mystery, and honours the weight of its themes while providing a spark of hope.

The Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola is published by Dialogue Books (£14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply

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