10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak
Published by: Viking Books/Penguin Random House UK
Literary Fiction, 308p
Rating: 4/5 stars
‘In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away…’
For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life – friends who are now desperately trying to find her…
About the author:
Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist and the most widely read female author in Turkey. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published seventeen books, eleven of which are novels. Her work has been translated into fifty languages. Shafak is an activist for women’s rights, minority rights, and freedom of speech. She also writes and speaks about a range of issues including global and cultural politics, the future of Europe, Turkey and the Middle East, democracy, and pluralism.
In her latest book (Shortlisted for the Booker), Elif Shafak brings to us the fictional lives of Istanbul’s most unwanted, most stigmatized and least understood. Told in a non linear narrative, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World starts with Leila’s last thoughts that takes readers through the sights and smell of her childhood; growing up with her dysfunctional family; one where there are unspoken secrets and the toll they take on Leila herself; and the socio cultural norms that engulf the small town over time, mirroring the overall political landscape of Turkey.
Shafak captures the beauty of Istanbul but punctures it just as well by taking us to the seedy lanes, its unsavoury characters who prey on the lives of women. Leila as a character is the rebel, the one who questions and the one who gets pushed to the wall and then gets discarded. But she picks herself up, puts up a fight and she also finds five others who are as much living on the fringes as she is. Except for a male character who is her childhood friend and who connects with Leila because his mother is a social outcaste, all five who bond with Leila are women, each grappling with being misfits, because they are not who society wants them to be. It is through the lives of Leila and her friends that we are taken through the political history of Turkey and a bit of how global events have shaped their lives. The writing is quite a sensory experience with the lush descriptions of taste and smells of food that are central to the Turkish palate.
The plot is focused on sexual violence: in the home and outside where women are victims but continue to be vilified and thrown to the margins where they continue to be vulnerable. Leila’s life has a sad trajectory but the ending ensures that she gives something positive to her friends.
Shafak is a writer whose books and characters while being rooted in Istanbul/Turkey ties them to contemporary concerns in the world today – that of being judged, punished, exiled, unwanted, uprooted and pushed away to the margins as nameless entities. Shafak’s characters are simple yet complex, her narrative and plots revealing layers that leave readers thinking and touched.