10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is an extraordinary novel, a sensual delight that moves across time and place as it delves into the life of a murdered prostitute.
Elif Shafak begins with astounding panache, taking us into the mind of “Tequila Leila” as her body and mind count down to her death in a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul.
When the book opens, Leila’s heart has already stopped beating, but her brain continues to function. In the last ten minutes of her consciousness, she recalls key moments in her life.
People thought you changed into a corpse the instant you exhaled your last breath. But things were not clear-cut like that. Just as there were countless shades between jet black and brilliant white, so there were multiple stages of this thing called ‘eternal rest.’ If a border existed between the Realm of Life and the Realm of Afterlife, Leila decided, it must be as permeable as sandstone.
Through her memories, we come to know not only the experiences and and places that shaped Leila but also the people who surrounded her.
She starts with her childhood as part of a multi-generational family in an eastern province of Turkey. Then came her decision to flee to Istanbul in search of a life free of sexual abuse and her father’s strict religious regime.
But freedom was not to be: there were no options for Leila to earn a living other than in the sex trade. It’s a life of further cruelty and hardship that ends with her battered and strangled body dumped in a bin.
Savouring The Past
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World captivates in so many ways.
Firstly it’s a feast for the senses. Shafak brings Istanbul to life through its smells, colours and sounds. The screeches of seagulls mingle with the sizzle of grills down at the harbour while the scent of cardomam and coffee waft through its streets .
Istanbul is a liquid city, one of many faces where its ancient past of fortune tellers and rug beaters clashes with the modern city of shopping centres and skyscrapers.
Imperial Istanbul versus plebeian Istanbul; global Istanbul versus parochial Istanbul; cosmopolitan Istanbul versus philistine Istanbul; heretical Istanbul versus pious Istanbul; macho Istanbul versus feminine Istanbul… then there was the Istanbul of those who had left long ago, sailing to faraway ports. For them this city would always be a metropolis made of memories, myths and messianic longings, forever elusive like a lover’s face receding in the mist.
Food plays a key role in the narrative as Leila’s final minutes are marked by her memories of tastes and smells from the city and from her childhood.
The salt in which her new born body was covered by a midwife. The lemon, sugar and water that bubbled on the stove when she was a girl. The strong, dark cardamom coffee she drank during breaks between clients at the Istanbul brothel and the whisky she drank on her last night alive.
In her remaining five minutes on earth we learn:
Leila recalled her brother’s birth. A memory that carried with it the taste and smell of spiced goat stew – cumin, fennel seeds , cloves, onions, tomatoes, tail fat and goat’s meat.
Every memory is followed by an associated story or an anecdote. So in her final minute she recalls the taste of home-made strawberry cake which recalls her last birthday spent surrounded by her best friends.
Power of Friendship
This is a novel also about the power of friendship. Leila’s group of five friends, known by their nicknames as Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humeyr, are all outsiders in the city. One is a transgender woman, another was trafficked to Istanbul from Somalia while a third, like Leila, is a runaway.
Together they and Leila are stronger than when they try to live independently. Together they form her alternative family.
She had never told her friends this, not in so many words, but they were her safety net. Every time she stumbled or keeled over, they were there for her, supporting her or softening the impact of the fall. On nights when she was mistreated by a client, she would still find the strength to hold herself up, knowing that her friends, with their very presence, would come with ointment for her scrapes and bruises; and on days when she wallowed in self-pity, her chest cracking open, they would gently pull her up and breathe life into her lungs.
It’s this odd group that determines Leila will not be forgotten, that she will be more than just a story in the city’s newspapers. The final section of the novel shows them resolve to rescue Leila from the Cemetery of the Companionless and ensure she receives a fitting farewell. Their actions give the final section the feeling of a farce but underneath the humour, it’s the love that these friends have for Leila that really shines through.
This is a novel that tells a complex story of a broken woman and individuals who live on the fringe of society. The prose is rich and evocative and utterly compelling.
an extraordinary tale of a brutalised, broken but profoundly courageous
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World: Footnotes
Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish author of 19 books. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World , her 17th novel, was released in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in the same year Shafak’s reputation for challenging the Turkish state’s official narrative of itself has come at a cost. For acknowledging the Armenian genocide in her 2006 novel “The Bastard of Istanbul” she was put on trial for “insulting Turkishness” (the charges were ultimately dropped); and for confronting sexual violence in her fiction, including in “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World,” she has been investigated by Turkish authorities for obscenity.