Tue. Jan 18th, 2022

“I’m often reminded that I’m coming from a place in war,” said the protagonist of JJ Bola’s second novel, The selfless act of breathing, think. “I live in a body at war, a spirit at war.” And one of the most extreme conflicts in the life of Michael Kabongo, a young British-Congolese high school teacher, is between how he appears (strong, valued) and how he feels (suicide, worthless).

After increasing pressure at work, and from family and friends who cannot see that he needs the same support they ask of him, Michael travels from London to America, “For no reason but romance, poetry.” He takes all the money in his bank account; when it runs out, he plans to take his own life. A first-person narrative tells of the events in London that led to his decision, with alternating chapters in a dissociated third person following him as he travels through the US, benefiting from as well as life-changing connections.

Bola is also a poet, essayist and mental health worker, and his work often covers fragile masculinity, its codes and execution. He writes powerfully in this book about belonging, the legacy of colonialism, and kindness among young men who fear being considered “weak.” Michael’s attempt to free a promising student from violence in school and drug trafficking outside makes a touching side-plot. In addition to Michael’s suffering, we are shown a web of others’ suffering. Some of these he can feel, others he can not.

The author writes with penetration about vulnerability. But by allowing Michael unlimited emotional expression, his prose can occupy an awkward register, tainting its lyrical grandeur with a sense of flatness. “He looks at her and wishes he could pick up her tears and turn them into diamonds, and then give everything back to her,” he writes at one point. Elsewhere, a tear is “like a raindrop from a cloud of a thousand memories.” Tower blocks are “each a trap for a thousand broken dreams”.

It would be wrong to penalize Bola for risking a vulnerability that would stifle his own characters by refraining. (In a strange analogy of the male peer pressure he illustrates, writers often seem compelled to be frugal, laconic, or ironic.) But his prose runs the risk of conveying less substantial meaning and emotional depth than it does announce. It’s a shame, because this book’s message is so important.

The selfless act of breathing is the smartest when it allows us to see things that Michael can not see. Not only the positive impact he has on his environment, but also how the care he offers is actually returned to him. Bola captures the insurmountable paradox of feeling worthless, and of suicidal thoughts. His young male protagonist is unable to experience, or feel valued, precisely because of the numbness and suffering that, in an ideal world, would remedy these things.

The selfless act of breathing by JJ Bola, Dialogue books £ 14.99, 304 pages

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