THE PLOT: ‘The Selfless Act of Breathing’ by J.J. Bola is a literary novel about a British-Congolese teacher who is suicidal. Michael is struggling with his life in London, teaching kids who are more likely to end up in prison than university. Mourning the loss of his father and unable to connect to his religious mother, he can barely make it through each day. Longing to escape, he travels to the U.S., planning to follow his dreams until his money runs out. But as he meets new people along his transformative journey, he considers what it means to be alive.
RATING: Four stars. This is a deep, soulful novel that has poetry at its heart. Told in two timelines split between America and London, it moves back and forth to show a variety of stressors and triggers for Michael’s depression. I recently read an article that said the suicide rates for men have reached a high in England and Wales, with young men of Black African or Black Caribbean origin more at risk. This novel is a much-needed and sensitive representation of those struggles, and I’m so happy it exists.
GOOD BITS: This novel feels like a character study, rather than a plot-filled page-turner. It looks intimately at Michael’s mental state and he has a very quiet, internal character arc. This means you get to know the character deeply. The atmosphere and tone is very pensive, as if you, too, are living in Michael’s head. The writing style is very accomplished. There are well-observed quips and an interesting use of language and repetition to convey social concepts or Michael’s mental state. This is certainly a book for someone who loves to tab and underline sections.
NOT SO GOOD BITS: I was more invested in the storyline set in London than America. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the bits in the U.S. but I felt like I knew where they were heading and, in a way, they felt like connected short stories rather than a cohesive novel. In particular, I thought the connection with Belle felt a bit sudden and their intimacy was forced at the start of the New York section. Additionally, I loved the character of Michael’s best friend, Jalil, but I wanted to understand the resolution to his storyline better. It felt like there was so much more to unpack.
OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘Open Water’ by Caleb Nelson, ‘Real Life’ by Brandon Taylor and ‘Lot’ by Bryan Washington. All of these books have a poetic and atmospheric tone as they explore male mental health in a variety of ways. This book might be triggering for those who have undergone their own mental health struggles but others, like myself, may find comfort in knowing they are not alone.
Order this novel from your local independent bookshop here: https://uk.bookshop.org/a/11336/9780349702063