Hourglass

JJ Bola’s Selfless Act of Breathing – a traveler misses the connection | fiction

Michael Kabongo is on the trip of a lifetime. He’s quit his teaching job in the downtown core, bought a plane ticket to San Francisco, and is determined to burn his savings as he heads to Dallas, Chicago, New York. Envious? Don’t be, because as soon as it becomes obvious he is propelled not by the urge to travel but by depression, and once he shares the real reason for his travels, his declining bank balance evokes d ‘all the more with force the rapid grains of an hourglass.

Poet JJ Bola wrote about masculinity and mental health issues in his 2019 non-fiction book Without mask, and this second incantatory novel also touches on his experiences; on belonging (he arrived in the UK from the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo as a child) and on faith.

Throughout, third-person descriptions of Michael’s US odyssey are paired with first-person glimpses of the disconnected existence of London that precipitated his departure. There’s the tower in which he continues to live with his pious mother, the dead father he barely knew from looking at framed photos. There is an overwhelming break-up and heartbreak with his two remaining friends. And there is the swallowed up desperation of a job that he says will no longer make a difference.

In the United States, he tries to dodge human relations, but there are flirtations – a love affair, even – as well as existential discussions with a homeless man, a taxi driver, an abuser who reminds us of the students that Michael left behind. Bola’s ear for rhythm and cadence is keen, and he lets the characters monologue as if attempting a poetry slam, their diction inflected with the street and pulpit as they riff on the cities, the black history, police brutality.

While the novel’s lyricism seems too sweet at times (one sex scene in particular finds Michael searching for the “gem” in his lover’s “crown”), Michael himself remains enigmatic, keeping the reader alert. Towards the end, Bola makes an interesting decision to skip a dramatic pivot point; while sure to anger some, it imbues the book’s final scene with mystery and honors the weight of its themes while providing a spark of hope.

The altruistic act of breathing by JJ Bola is published by Dialogue Books (£ 14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy on guardbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply


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