Cover Image: The Selfless Act of Breathing

The Selfless Act of Breathing

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Member Reviews

This book is stunning. You can tell from the title that the writing is going to be a lyrical beauty and it did not disappoint. It is a serious and heavy book but also with the specific levity of utter relatability in both being a Londoner, and being a Londoner who has visited the US (San Francisco in particular for me).

This book is about Michael, who at the very beginning decides to withdraw all his money, travel to the US and when his money runs out commit suicide. It follows his time in the US alongside flashbacks to his time back in London where he works as a teacher so that by the end of the book you understand how and why he began this journey. It’s utterly heart-breaking alongside being a joy to read and each character is fully realised and clearly driven by their own motives, personality, and goals – and you see that from Michael’s specific point of view. I can’t express how much it felt like I knew all of these people by the end of the book. It made me want to contact my friends and check if they are okay instead of being miffed that they haven’t got back to me.

There are some really beautiful and poignant moments in the book and I completely believed the narrative. It blew me away. Also the cover art is so gorgeous. The title is gorgeous. The contents did not disappoint. I wish I could read this again for the first time.
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The Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola is a deep, lyrical story of unraveling. Michael Kabongo is a British-Congolese teacher living in London. He is living two lives on the surface he looks to inspire his students and protect his mother but inside he is drowning as he witnesses injustice, discrimination and the violence that isolates the young black men around him. After a tragedy, Michael decides to leave for America with his life savings, his journey is a ticking clock as he finds himself spiralling into depression and darkness. On this journey he finds love, friendship and loss. The prose is beautiful and rich creating a tender portrait of a man in crisis. Each chapter changes setting and timeframe and this can be difficult to navigate and some chapters I wish were more expansive on Michael’s journey, Overall, this is a moving, important book on the power of hope and opening ourselves up to vulnerability. For fans of contemporary fiction 4 stars ⭐️.
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I received a copy of this book via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

This is a story of two sides. From the perspective of the character, to the writing style and to my feelings about the book. Let me explain.

We're reading about Michael, a disillusioned secondary school teacher in a rough part of London. But we're also reading about Michael as someone at the end of his tether, trying to let go and live life travelling around the US, whilst trying to get to the end of his life.

Part of the writing was beautiful, poetic. Other parts were repetitive, like the author was struggling to fill the pages. I've never read "lugubrious" so many times before!

One chapter we're reading about Michael struggling in London, from his first person point of view. Next chapter we're in San Francisco, written in the third person. At first I though I was reading about two different people, and in a way, I guess I was. But it was confusing. Some of the writing, when talking about the same time and place (i.e. first person Michael at school) the timeline didn't quite gel. Maybe it was the format (PDF copy), and a lack of paragraphs, but one minute it's the beginning of the day and the next sentence he's on his way home.

Overall, the story was good. It brought the reality of inner-city London to the reader, the struggles of race and circumstance. How life can just drag you down and it's a fight to get out of the slump. The joys of travel and meeting new people, but highlighting the loneliness of a lone traveler as well. I feel it needs another proof-read and an edit, but I'm sure the released format will be spot on.
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I enjoyed this a lot to start with, beautifully written and hearfelt.  But then I felt it lost its way and became rather introspective and rambling.  But it was a good portrait of undiagnosed and untreated depression.
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Well, wow. The writing in this book was so lyrical and beautiful despite the tough subject matter. i loved the deep insight into the community in London which this novel was set and the touches of American culture when the protagonist travels in the USA. The author's musings on the world show that he definitely has a lot to say about being a black british man and the different racial and class issues in Britain and the US:

"Resentment for the Other has always existed, they merely did not yet have the power to act upon it". 

"They create the Other and then resent them for being it".

One thing that annoyed me SO MUCH about the writer's style in this book, however, was that he would switch the narrative from first person to third person constantly. He did it so much that for the first half of this book i was convinced that there were two protagonists. 

Once i got used to this narrative shift, i really couldnt put this book down and finished it in two days. Bola has some beautiful prose woven into this   story and the last page had me on the verge of tears. I'll definitely be looking out for more of Bola's work in the future.

"It is easier to kill another than it is to kill oneself. The most powerful instinct in nature is survival; to stay alive, and whomsoever overcomes it has great strength, not weakness".
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Such a thought provoking read, about the meaning of life and how we conduct ourselves and give in to challenges and hardship.

I'll be reflecting on the novel for a long time.

Thank you to NetGalley for the arc.
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Jj bola - the selfless act of breathing

Following the concise, thoughtful and prescient ‘Mask Off’, JJ Bola continues to probe blackness, masculinities and mental health in the selfless act of breathing.

Bola employs a dual timeline structure to tell the story of Michael, a teacher from an unnamed area of London who struggles to cope with the relentless pressures of his life, and makes the decision to withdraw all his savings, flee to America, and spend it all before committing suicide.

The way Bola utilises male characters throughout the novel to dissect the inconsistencies, fragility and damage of toxic masculinities is wonderful, though it could be argued that the novel is longer than it needs to be.
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This was an emotional read, a bit heavy at times so might not suit everyone. Depression is the main theme so it’s not an upbeat read, might need to be in the right mind for this.
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Can't wait for more people to read this book. It's so brutally honest and nuanced. I need more books like this
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The blurb describes this as a story of 'millennial existential angst'.  As a millennial with a fair share of 'existential angst' myself, I wasn't sure if that should be considered a warning sign or a selling point.  In the end I decided to give it a go out of curiosity; would this give me new insights into my own life and thought processes?  I suspect many other readers will pick it up for the same reason.

The story jumps between London and the USA.  In the London sections, which are told in the first person, the protagonist Michael is a school teacher in his late 20s, still living with his mother,   He feels an ever increasing sense of futility in his life, despite having some good friends, a caring parent, and the chance to make a positive difference to young people's lives.  In the USA sections, which are written in the third person, Michael has given everything up to undertake a meandering road trip, with the intention of killing himself once his savings run out.  

The UK sections are much more readable than the US ones, which have an underlying vagueness and lack of direction that is quite annoying.  They read a bit like dream sequences, with irritating gaps.  Whereas Michael's life in London has more structure and focus, albeit underpinned by a lot that 'existential angst' promised on the jacket.  I can't really complain, because no one tried to disguise that that's what the book was about.  And that's what you get - pages and pages of monologues on the meaning of life (or the lack of meaning).  It gets tired fairly fast and I skim-read more and more as I got further into the book.  By the end I was skimming the monologues, skimming the USA section, and therefore only paying significant attention to about a third of the book.  And it was probably a better read for it.

I wanted to sympathise with Michael - and I did, to some degree.  He's a reasonably likeable character - there's nothing 'bad' about him other than his self-absorption.  But although I can empathise with his struggles to find meaning in life and his disillusionment with the world, I couldn't really understand his ultimate choice to give up on it all.  Rather than suffering 'millennial angst', he is more accurately suffering chronic depression.  The feelings of exhaustion and hopelessness are classic signs of serious depression.  But it never gets addressed as such.  I had hoped the book might make such feelings explicable, but it didn't really, despite all the page time given to Michael's thoughts and feelings.  

Bola isn't a bad writer even if he is a bit over-wordy, but this story just didn't work for me.  I think it would appeal most to readers who like philosophy and books that involve a lot of introspection, or novels with a focus on characters 'finding themselves'.  If you prefer a story that's plot driven with more dialogue than internal meanderings, it probably isn't a good choice of read.
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An emotional read that will stay with me.
A steady pace, nothing slow and nothing rushed. Perfect! 
I loved this book – I lost my whole day reading – just couldn't bare to put it down!
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What was I expecting when I requested this book? It was very slow-moving and uninteresting. Sometimes it felt like a true description of being depressed but it did drag.
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It's quite hard to quantify this book. For one, I am not black, secondly I am not male so this could potentially have been meaningless to me. I am also a good deal older than the protagonist. However, I really did find myself connecting and empathising with Michael who takes his life savings, goes to the USA to blow it all and at the end kill himself. Maybe it was the places he chose in the US that resonated. They are all places I know. The poet reading I particularly loved. We can all feel very lost and not know our way. Age, gender, colour doesn't matter in this sense. Michael's journey was not very cheerful it has to be said but J.J. Bola created a painting in a book that helped us see depression and the effect it has and also to discuss this feeling of loss, confusion, fear and trepidation a lot of us have along the way and try and make some sense of it all.
Two minor irks. Inconsistent use of US/UK spellings in the book (please pick UK all the way through but US for the US bits I could cope with) The text in some places was incredibly faint and hard to read.
I'm not sure how I wanted the book to end but the ending is a good one. This book will stay with me for a long time
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My thanks to NetGalley and the publishers for this advance copy in exchange for an honest review.  I persevered with this novel, but found it depressing, slow moving and dull. I’ve only myself to blame as the title should have been an indicator as to what was ahead. Life can be depressing enough without having to live through another’s predicament. The novel though has some alluring aspects, dry sense of humour and occasional high notes. Easily readable, but just not for me.
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I love the title: The Selfless Act of Breathing. Breathing is something we do unconsciously. And it’s important to do so because if we stop breathing we die. It’s as simple as that. But what if we don’t want to breath anymore? 

Michael is a Congolese British teacher and seems to have it all: friends, a love interest, a wonderful job. But he’s tired all the time and looks up to everything. He becomes depressed, and decides to flee to America after a loss, wanting to end his life once his savings run out.

The writing of this heartfelt story is engaging and lyrical, almost like prose. I could quote so many beautiful sentences, all giving food for thought. Alternating between present and past, The Selfless Act of Breathing slowly reveals more and more about Michael’s depression. By using present tense, third person in the present and past tense, first person in the past, the story is active and never boring.

This book is not only about depression and wanting to die. It’s also about being born in another country, about belonging, about loneliness, about being Black, about losing loved ones, about masculinity, and finally about hope. Although the themes are heavy, and the writing is lyrical, this story is very easy readable. I read it in a couple of sittings. Highly recommended!

Publication on Goodreads: 19 October 2021
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