Wednesday, February 23, 2022

THE SELFLESS ACT OF BREATHING, a deeply felt meditative look at the cost of modern life


Atria Books
$27.00 hardcover, available now

A FILM IS IN THE WORKS! "I thank my readers and I look forward to reaching a new audience, via a new medium, and helping us all — which is the reason I wrote this novel — to remember that no matter how we feel, we are not alone,” says Author Bola.

Rating: 4* of five

The Publisher Says: Transcendent Kingdom meets A Man Called Ove in this heartwarming novel about a Congolese-British Londoner who decides to go on one last adventure in the United States, determined to end his life once his savings run out.

As a charismatic teacher living in London, Michael Kabongo strives to alleviate the injustices he sees around him: for the students who long for better lives, in memory of his father’s tragic death, and to end the violent marginalization of Black men around the world.

But after a devastating loss, he decides to embark on an adventure in the land of the free—the United States of America. From Dallas to San Francisco, Michael parties with new friends, engages in fleeting romances, splurges on thrilling escapades, all with the intention of ending his life once all his savings run out.

As he makes surprising new connections and faces old prejudices in odd but exciting new settings, Michael alone must decide if his life is worth living after all...


My Review
: I tried to commit suicide in 2014. It was a very low point in my life. It was fortunate that my life didn't end because of the disordered thinking...a woman named Julie made a fortuitous call as I was beginning the process and sent the police to I am here to write this review. This is also why I wanted to review this book, given the narrator's plan to end his life when his savings were blown. (Side note: Howinahell did he get so far on a lousy $9000?!)

It's not clear to me why the topic of suicide isn't a trigger for reupping the suicidal ideation machine in me. I can read about the deeply depressed and the suicidal in novels and feel so much compassion, so much sympathy...but no desire to emulate them, only to reach out to them and say "this is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." I've gone through a lot of introspective stuff (CBT works!) and think of the idea of death as, well, honestly it's undisturbing to me. Neither attractive nor repulsive, just a fact. And the manner of Michael, our PoV character, making his decision to go blow his money then die rang memory bells. "This final act, then nothingness" probably sounds better to the truly suicidally depressed than more emotionally overwrought ideation does.

Michael addresses us in the parts of the book set in London. He's fully present, he's struggling to do his teaching job well, and he's floundering in grief deeper than even he can tell...grief too deep to be solely about a recent loss. Michael's decision to leave for the US with that paltry $9000 and live until it runs out (he'd be in Delaware Water Gap, New Jersey, not San Francisco!) is narrated in third person, a choice I took to be representative of his dissociation from the life he was abandoning and refusal to invest in the life he was going to exist through in the US. It wasn't a choice I felt did the story any great service. I think it probably just confused most readers. And I'm not all the way sure I am correct in my analysis, there are other possibilities but I can't make one up that makes the least bit of sense to me except the dissociation one.

What elevates this debut novel above the pack it comes out with is the lovely poetical aphoristic phrase making:
We fight to be seen, for the world to know that we are here, only for us to be forgotten, to be invisible once again.


Have you ever loved, knowing it would end, but giving your whole heart regardless?


The thing about losing love is makes you feel like you can never love again, like you are not worthy.


Loneliness is being there for everyone, everyone, in the hope that someone will be there for you. But no one ever is. You are the sun, lighting the world of another, while setting yourself on fire.


And above all, it is love, that spark of bright light, that dazzling flame, ephemeral or eternal, may it find us, may it be us, the will that carries us forward, the bond that brings us back, from beyond this lonely feeling to healing; the selfless act of breathing.

The author might be making his fiction debut (correction this is the author's second novel, after 2017's No Place to Call Home) but he's an established poet (Elevate and Daughter of the Sun among others) and it's ever so clear that his phrases will sound gorgeous when spoken aloud. That is also, to be frank, the issue that led to me docking a star off the story's subjective rating: It's performative, it's got an eye on its look in the mirror of your regard. It is, in other words, like poetry is to me: phonied up, heightened, exaggerated to make some point that I think you, O Writer, should trust me to get all on my own. If, that is, you've done your part of the job....

What I hope you'll do is sample the book. Put a bit on your Kindle and see if the way the author slings the lingo hits your sweet spot. If so, there's nothing to prevent you from enjoying the book in its entirety. The first chapters are a good index for the voice the entire book has. While I'm here today because suicide didn't turn out to be the best option for me, this is not an apologia for the act or I'd tell you to avoid it. What leads a person to consider suicide: depression, a sense of alienation from the world around them, a loneliness that pervades this world of exclusion and judgment...all this is the subject of Author Bola's work.
This sadness, how it falls upon you, like mist or fog, not there, then sudden and all at once; a greyness, enveloping you, submerged under water. This sadness in your bones, each step heavier than the last raises questions: how much longer is this journey? How much longer can I walk?

This is an elegant distillation of the greyness of depression and the desperation of feeling it's endless because you've got no perspective where this isn't what you see...all of that is very, very real and very salutary for all of those whose world doesn't have it anywhere (all five of you) to get into your brains. It could make your empathy bumps bigger, spread your hugging arms wider, and tune up your "there, there, my friend" to a fresher pitch.

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