The Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Donald M Murray – an American journalist and professor of English – once wrote that ‘all writing is autobiography’ believing that writers draw on their own well of experience whatever they may write – including fiction.

JJ Bola seems to have done that in his second novel – his first, evocatively named No Place to Call Home, was published in 2017.  In common with the protagonist of The Selfless Act of Breathing – Michael Kobongo – JJ Bola was originally from the Democratic Republic of Congo and emigrated with his family to London when he was aged six.  He is now an established writer and poet and has published three collections of poetry.  His poetic sensibilities flow through his new novel in that he describes, in words which create associations and emotions in the mind of the reader, the world in which Michael lives.  Michael’s internal dialogue as he returns home late one evening is  a fine example of the author’s poetic prose: This sadness, you wonder why it haunts you like a ghost, as though you were responsible for a death other than your own.  The sadness, the push and pull of it, how it whispers in your ear and speaks the language of melancholia [238].

To appreciate this novel fully, the reader must put aside any expectations of a linear narrative as they will be challenged by the structure of the novel.  Chapters set in London alternate with those set in New York; the London chapters are narrated in the first-person by Michael while the New York chapters are narrated in the third-person.  While chapters are fixed in place and time [as in ‘Peckriver Estate, London; 10.17pm’ or ‘Harlem, New York City; 3.33am’], there is no immediate sense of whether chronologically the New York chapters precede or follow the London chapters – at least not until the concluding pages of the novel.

The novel opens with Michael living in London with his mother.  His father, who brought the family from Congo to London when Michael was a child, mysteriously returned there shortly after and was not heard from again.  The disappearance of his father is a significant issue with Michael and he returns to this physical and psychological absence a number of times through the novel.  Now a teacher in a comprehensive school, Michael is – somewhat incongruously – disenchanted with his life.  As he says at one point, although he is a young employed adult, he has no money, no wife, no children and lives with his mother.  He begins to feel increasingly dissatisfied with his life to the extent that he experiences an existential crisis – he begins questioning the meaning, purpose and value of human life.

His dissatisfaction is exacerbated by an incident involving a boy in his Year 11 class.  Duwayne is disengaged from the class activities which occur unheeded around him as his eyes face the window and his hands are down his pants.  By chance, Michael introduces Duwayne to basketball – a sport in which the author played professionally thus echoing Murray’s quote at the beginning of this review – at which he proves to possess a natural talent.  But ultimately, Duwayne’s success at basketball is not enough to overcome the pull of his urban environment.

The novel opens with the sentence: I quit my job, I am taking my life savings – $9,021 – and when it runs out, I am going to kill myself [3].  The specific incidents which brought Michael to this existential crisis are gradually revealed through the subsequent ‘London’ chapters while the ‘New York’ chapters set out the trajectory towards his planned suicide.  Through the skill of the author, it becomes apparent to the reader that Michael, weighed down with an increasing sense of pointlessness, is brought to a point at which he accepts suicide as a solution.

The Selfless Act of Breathing – the meaning of which is offered at the conclusion of the novel – is beautifully written with sensitivity and intelligence.  Michael is an engaging young man and the reader will empathise with him as he struggles with sense of hopelessness in a world which offers so much but delivers so little.

Well recommended.

The Selfless Act of Breathing

by JJ Bola

[2021]

Hachette Australia

ISBN 978 03497 0200 7

$32.99; 304pp

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