The Selfless Act of Breathing: J.J. Bola

Published by Dialogue Books

“I quit my job, I am taking my life savings—$9,021—and when it runs out, I am going to kill myself.”

Michael Kabongo is a schoolteacher in London. He is going through severe depression and feels alone, disconnected, and unable to confide in anyone, even his closest friends.

London is home, except that it isn’t really. Michael was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and came to the UK with his parents as a child. He feels he belongs nowhere and to no one. He lives with his mother and the memories of his father, who was killed when he returned to the DRC. When Michael’s mother announces she is going to marry Pastor Baptiste, the preacher in her church, Michael sees it as a betrayal of his father, even though his father has been dead for 20 years.

Finding it more and more difficult each day to focus on his teaching, Michael eventually quits. He takes his savings and leaves for the US, having decided to kill himself once his money runs out. The book moves between a first-person narrative of Michael’s life in London and a third-person narrative of his journey through the US. Each of the US chapters ends with the amount of money he has left, bringing him closer to a point of no return.

Michael’s relationships in London fall apart: with his mother; with Sandra, a teacher at his school; with his friend Jalil, who is trying to find a good Muslim wife to please his father; and with Duwayne, a young teenage student in his class. This is mostly because Michael does not have the will or the energy to deal with them, which in turn increases his sense of isolation until it becomes a vicious circle.

In the US, Michael meets Belle, a Black woman who dances in a strip club to make extra money. He feels he has finally found his other half, but Belle is carrying a lot of baggage of her own.

I found this book incredibly moving. J.J. Bola writes perceptively about depression, pain and grief. In New York, a homeless man tells Michael that his problem is not that he wants to die but that he wants the hopelessness to end. Michael sees this, but can find no other way out. “I want to die, yet I speak not as a man who wants to die, but as a man who wants to live, and dying is the only way I know how.”

The loss of his father weighs heavily on Michael, and he envies Jalil: “What a privilege it is, even, to see your father die. To know where he is buried, to know where he can be found.” But Michael still has his mother, as Belle—who is an orphan—reminds him. Michael is so caught up in his own pain that he refuses to acknowledge his mother’s grief.

Bola is a poet, and it comes through in his writing: “I wanted to live where there is no consequence to this body, where I am not named, where I am not known. Where I am passing, invisible, like a breeze, or a gentle gust of wind, light through broken windows, moving from one life to the next. I did not want to know others. I did not even want to know myself.”

There is a lot of heartbreak in this book, but also redemption. The story of Duwayne is one that has been repeated over and over: a boy who tries to find his way in a world that is not kind to children like him.

In the end, a crucial decision is taken off-stage, so to speak, and the reader only comes in after the fact. I liked the way Bola did that: by then, we have followed Michael through all his ups and downs and the way he tries to figure out his life. We do not need to know how he makes his final decision.  

This is a powerful book that will stay with me. I love Bola’s writing and look forward to more of his work.


Read my review of J.J. Bola’s No Place to Call Home.

6 thoughts on “The Selfless Act of Breathing: J.J. Bola

  1. The opening lines hooked me in. I love what the homeless man said to him: “ the problem is not that he wants to die , but that he wants the hopelessness to end”. Sound like a “deep read “.

    1. suroor alikhan

      It moved me. It’s been a long time since a book made me cry (in a good way!). I loved JJ Bola’s first book too. Am just adding in the link here.

  2. Pingback: No Place to Call Home—Love, Loss, Belonging: J.J. Bola – Talking About Books

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