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

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Michael Kabongo is connected the travel of a lifetime. He’s discontinue his occupation arsenic an inner-city schoolteacher, bought a level summons to San Francisco, and is bent connected burning done his savings arsenic helium presses onwards to Dallas, Chicago, New York City. Envious? Don’t be, due to the fact that arsenic soon becomes apparent, helium is propelled not by wanderlust but by depression, and erstwhile he’s shared the existent crushed for his travels, his dwindling slope equilibrium evokes each the much forcibly the fast-flowing grains of an hourglass.

Poet JJ Bola wrote astir masculinity and intelligence wellness struggles successful his 2019 nonfiction book Mask Off, and this incantatory 2nd caller touches connected his experiences too; connected belonging (he arrived successful the UK from war-riven Democratic Republic of the Congo arsenic a child) and faith.

Throughout, third-person descriptions of Michael’s Stateside odyssey are spliced with first-person glimpses of the disconnected London beingness that precipitated his departure. There’s the operation artifact successful which helium continues to unrecorded with his pious mother, the dormant begetter helium hardly knew gazing retired from framed photos. There’s a soul-crushing break-up and rifts with his 2 remaining friends. And there’s the engulfing despair of a occupation that helium nary longer believes volition marque a difference.

In the US, helium tries to dodge quality connection, but determination are flirtations – a emotion affair, adjacent – arsenic good arsenic existential chats with a stateless man, a cab driver, a mugger who calls to caput the students Michael has near behind. Bola’s receptor for bushed and cadence is sharp, and helium lets characters soliloquise arsenic if acing a poesy slam, their diction inflected with the thoroughfare and the pulpit arsenic they riff connected cities, achromatic history, constabulary brutality.

If the novel’s lyricism sometimes feels over-honeyed (one peculiar enactment country finds Michael searching for the “jewel” successful his lover’s “crown”), Michael himself remains enigmatic, keeping the scholar alert. Near the end, Bola makes an absorbing determination to skip a melodramatic pivot point; though definite to irritate some, this imbues the book’s closing country with mystery, and honours the value of its themes portion providing a spark of hope.