Sunday, December 3, 2023

The Selfless Act of Breathing

The Selfless Act of Breathing
  The Selfless Act of Breathing
Author:  JJ Bola
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2022. 272 pages.
ISBN:  1982175567 / 978-1982175566

Book Source:  I received this book through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I quit my job; I am taking my life savings, $9,021, and when it runs out, I am going to kill myself."

Favorite Quote:  "It is in these moments that we are compelled to question the meaning of life, and whether life has any meaning at all; moments when tragedy hits us so unexpectedly, and so sudden. But it is also in these moments that we come together ... and find meaning in each other, supporting each other through it all."

The description of this book tells a different story than the book itself. "Michael Kabongo is a British Congolese teacher living in London and living the dream: he’s beloved by his students, popular with his coworkers, and adored by his proud mother who emigrated from the Congo to the UK in search of a better life. But when he suffers a devastating loss, his life is thrown into a tailspin. As he struggles to find a way forward, memories of his fathers’ violent death, the weight of refugeehood, and an increasing sense of dread threaten everything he’s worked so hard to achieve. Longing to start over, Michael decides to spontaneously pack up and go to America, the mythical “land of the free,” where he imagines everything will be better and easier. On this transformative journey, Michael travels everywhere from New York City to San Francisco, partying with new friends, sparking fleeting romances, and splurging on big adventures, with the intention of living the life of his dreams until the money in his bank account runs out."

The description speaks of the life of a refugee, the Black experience in London, a loss, a new beginning, and a transformation. However, it leaves out a critical piece of information revealed in the opening sentence of the book. The main character begins the book contemplating suicide. That is a major trigger warning in the first sentence with no prior warning in the descriptions. In addition, that changes the tone of new beginnings and transformations into endings and desperation.

That aside, the premise of the book then takes a different turn. The plan for taking one's life is to first travel to a brand new destination; take in all that the destination has to offer there including new friends, romances, adventures, and the life of one's dreams; and then, when money runs out, to follow through on the intention of suicide. I have limited knowledge of the challenges of mental health that lead to contemplation of suicide, but I would be interested in know if such a plan is a realistic presentation of those challenges. In addition, nowhere in these plans is the idea of perhaps seeking help or counseling.

That aside, the book narrates the story in a two-time line approach. Michael in the United States, and, I think, Michael, in the days and weeks that lead up to his decision to leave London. It it at times confusing. The chapter headings state a location and a time, but no date. The narration is at times first person and at times third person. The "devastating loss" that finally drives Michael to this decision is revealed very late in the book. Not knowing or understanding Michael's "why" for this final journey makes it challenging to follow him as a character. Perhaps, it is hinted at. "Sometimes it is easier to forget than to heal."

The book also leaves a question. The title references the act of breathing - being alive - as being "selfless." Does that in turn present suicide as a "selfish" decision?  If so, that, to me, is a disservice to the mental health field and undermines the challenges that lead any individual to contemplate such a choice.

The one thought that I will take from this book is a reminder. "Oh, how would we treat the people in our lives if we knew which conversation would be the last? would we act differently? Appreciate every moment? Tell them we love them?"

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

No comments:

Post a Comment