Book Review: The Selfless Act of Breathing by JJ Bola

“Suffering must be given a voice, a platform from which to speak, it is then that suffering becomes art and, in turn, becomes truth.”

An image of a blue book cover with a white line drawn image of a man sitting on a window seat, looking out at a cityscape, line drawn in red against a lighter red sky. The words "The Selfish Act of Breathing" are written in white, left aligned so that they mostly populate the blue space.
US Cover

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What I loved

The Selfless Act of Breathing is poetry. A lyrical presentation of truths. A song filled with truth and raw pain.

Dealing with masculinity, marginalisation and mental health, Michael Kabongo’s story is split into two timelines.

The past is told in first person, allowing you to really get into Michael’s head and understand what led him to his decision.

The present day is told in third person, mimicking his detachment from life, allowing the reader to see his world through the veil that depression creates. The effect is a powerful one, and had me captivated from beginning to end.

“Maybe I’ve been in love with one person. But I’ve always felt alone.”

So why the rating?

In the end I wanted it to comfort me, to draw me close and tell me everything would be okay.

Instead it gently withdrew the mirror to this world, with a glimmer of hope and told me, “And now the choice is yours.”

Because that’s what it boils down to, right? Choice.

This stunning book absolutely broke me. It was observant and beautiful. It was heartbreaking, moving. It left me so full and so empty at the same time.


This was not an easy or comfortable read and as such it took me some time to get through it. But I’m really glad I did.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐/5

A hand showing a book with many coloured tabs used to marking book quotes.
Tabbing felt necessary for this stunning book.

TW: Themes and topics that discuss, mention or imply mental health struggles, death (including suicide), gangs, loss, grief.


Format: Print (US Paperback)

Length: 304 Pages

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Published: November 2021

A heartbreaking, lyrical story for all of those who have fantasised about escaping their daily lives and starting over.

Michael Kabongo is a British-Congolese teacher living in London on the cusp of two identities. On paper, he seems to have it all – he’s loved by his students, popular with his colleagues, and enjoys the pride of his mother who emigrated from the Congo. But behind closed doors, he’s been struggling with the overwhelming sense that he can’t improve the injustices he sees – from his efforts to change the lives of his students, to his attempts to transcend the violence that marginalises young Black men around the world.

Then Michael suffers a devastating loss, and his life is thrown into a tailspin. As he struggles to find a way forward, memories of his fathers’ violent death, the weight of being a refugee, and an increasing sense of dread threaten everything he’s worked so hard to achieve.

Longing to escape the shadows in his mind and start anew, Michael decides to spontaneously pack up and go to America, the mythical ‘land of the free,’ where he imagines everything will be better, easier – a place where he can become someone new, someone without a past filled with pain. On this transformative journey, Michael travels from New York City to San Francisco, partying with new friends, sparking fleeting romances, and splurging on big adventures.

In the back of his mind, Michael has a plan: follow his dreams until the money in his bank account runs out, and then he will decide if his life is truly worth living…

Written in spellbinding prose, with Bola’s trademark, magnetic storytelling, The Selfless Act of Breathing is a heart-wrenching and deeply emotional novel about mental health, masculinity and the power of love.

A flatlay picture of the paperback version of The Selfless Act of Breathing, lying on a desk surrounded by a blue crystal, a blue candle, and some annotation tabs.

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