Bola’s ear for rhythm and cadence is sharp, and he lets characters soliloquise as if acing a poetry slam, their diction inflected with the street and the pulpit as they riff on cities, black history, police brutality ... If the novel’s lyricism sometimes feels over-honeyed...Michael himself remains enigmatic, keeping the reader alert. Near the end, Bola makes an interesting decision to skip a dramatic pivot point; though sure to irritate some, this imbues the book’s closing scene with mystery, and honours the weight of its themes while providing a spark of hope.
Bola’s filmic snapshots...are a vivid counterpoint to the mournful protagonist’s journey towards fulfilling his dark 'pact' ... The novel’s conceptual concern with the limited routes available for black people to find meaningful release from systemic racism is, without question, important and emotive ... Additionally, the novel’s intensity and earnestness are engrossing, and the reader is drawn along by a grim curiosity about whether Michael will see his plan through. However, the book struggles in some respects. Mental health challenges for black men are worthy terrain for the contemporary novelist ... But this novel, however heartfelt, rarely offers new, insightful or affecting investigation into the turmoil of suicidal ideation ... Largely, this is a result of stylistic choices. Though there are moving passages in which Michael’s distress is laid bare in powerfully raw terms...this directness and sensitivity is mostly absent. More often, there is a somewhat grandiose, ponderous and ultimately distancing tone to scenes ... Michael’s unexpected and seemingly revelatory relationship with an exotic dancer, Belle, in New York is presented in overblown phrases ... This novel’s great potential to reveal new truths about the intersectional minefields that black men negotiate is compromised by a brand of lyricism that distracts rather than illuminates.
Bola is also a poet, essayist and mental health worker, and his work often covers fragile masculinity, its codes and performance. He writes powerfully in this book about belonging, the legacy of colonialism, and kindness between young men who fear being thought 'weak' ... The author writes with penetration about vulnerability. But, in allowing Michael unfettered emotional expression, his prose can occupy an awkward register, its lyrical grandeur tainted by an air of platitude ... It would be wrong to penalise Bola for risking a vulnerability that his own characters stifle themselves by withholding ... But his prose risks conveying less essential meaning and emotional depth than it announces. This is a shame, because this book’s message is so important ... The Selfless Act of Breathing is most astute when it allows us to see things Michael can’t. Not just the positive influence he has on his environment, but also how the care that he offers is in fact returned to him. Bola captures the insurmountable paradox of feeling worthless, and of suicidal thoughts.
Bola often draws on poetic qualities that make his prose vibrant and colourful, but just as Michael closes himself off from loved ones, it also feels as if he is keeping the reader at bay, never really allowing us to fully comprehend the source of his pain. Despite the novel’s serious subject matter, it is often difficult to empathise with Michael, who at times feels one dimensional. Although the reader never truly learns of his past, it is around his students that Michael’s sadness and joy feel most authentic and affecting.
The author is not kind to his characters. Indeed, there is more misery here than in Les Misérables and more than a little overwriting. Nevertheless, Bola...proves himself a master of mood and empathy. Altogether, his novel is an excellent and heartrending effort.
The question of whether Michael will give in to his despair propels this moody novel from Bola ... Despite its melancholy tone, small and large surprises along the way provide insight, comfort, and reading pleasure.
Disappointing ... The narrative has moving moments, including a fine ending, but too often the impact is blunted by Bola’s heavy-handed prose. Indeed, he is at his best when he gets out of his own way and writes simply. There’s promise here, but also more than a few rough edges.