Book Reviews

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Cover of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this strange world by Elif Shafa,, a sensual delight of a novel set in Istanbul

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


What do you need to know about me? 1. I'm from Wales which is one of the countries in the UK and must never be confused with England. 2. My life has always revolved around the written and spoken word. I worked as a journalist for nine years then in international corporate communications 3. My tastes in books are eclectic. I love realism and hate science fiction and science fantasy. 4. I am trying to broaden my reading horizons geographically by reading more books in translation

28 thoughts on “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

  • I really enjoyed this when I read it a few years ago – I haven’t read anything else by Shafak yet, but I have The Flea Palace on my shelves and I’m looking forward to reading it.

    • I haven’t ready anything else by her either but yesterday one of our book club members was telling us how much she enjoyed her latest novel. I forget the name of it now but it was something to do with trees

  • It was a wonderful read, rich and sensual. Your review captured the flavour perfectly, plus the enduring and supportive friendship of the 5 women. One of my top reads of 2022.

  • This is such a wonderful novel, so glad you enjoyed it so much. The stories of those friendships are unforgettable. I have just started The Island of Missing Trees.

    • I passed my copy of “10 Minutes” onto a friend today and had to make her promise that she would give it back so I could re-read – something I hardly ever do these days, so that shows you how much I enjoyed the book

  • I encouraged my book club to read something by Elif Shafak, with this in mind, but somewhere along the line, the person who does the final book selection chose her essay collection How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division, which had some wonderful writing about being an immigrant/expat, but some of it didn’t interest me at all. I’m also supposed to be reading The Flea Palace (in Dutch) for 2022 Books of Summer, but I simply haven’t got into it yet. It may be postponed…

    • Whoops. That should be 20 books of summer. I have my phone set to complete the year whenever I type ‘20’, so if I don’t have my wits about
      me, I get caught out. I most certainly won’t be reading 2022 books this year, let alone this summer!

      • My jaw did drop when I saw the figure 2022. I’ve come across readers who have consumed 150 books in a year which I thought extraordinary but four figures would be a first 🙂

        • It would certainly speed me through my TBR. It always amazes me when people do a book-a-day challenge and even manage to produce coherent blogposts about what they’ve read. Even for novellas, that takes extraordinary concentration.

        • I suppose it’s possible if you had a health or mobility issue which meant that you had many hours in the day to read and blog. Even then I don’t think I would have the stamina to write that many reviews

    • I haven’t read an essay collection for decades but I suspect the experience is similar to reading a short story collection – some will resonate with you and others leave you cold

  • Istanbul is such an interesting setting but the book sounds so sad! I am not familiar with this author but it does sound tempting.

    • It is sad and depressing in the sense that people go to Istanbul expecting a better life but the city doesn’t want them. Istanbul isn’t alone in that though

  • Sheree @ Keeping Up With The Penguins

    Oooh, I’ve had this one on my shelf for AGES, thank you for the reminder to pick it up! It sounds gorgeous!

    • The writing in the first part where she recalls her earlier years is just superb

  • I loved this one too, even the ending. As you say, a feast for the senses, and I fell in love with all the friends.

    • I’ve seen negative comments about the friends being stereotypes but I didn’t feel that at all. They came across as real flesh and blodd to me

  • I’ve yet to read anything by her, though I’ve seen a couple of broadcast interviews and she comes across as, well, both formidable and sensitive, if that’s not a contradiction.

    • I get it. She does seem fearless in her advocacy of women’s rights and determination not to be cowed by the Turkish authorities who don’t like the way she presents the country (even if true)

  • The final section was a shock because it was so different to the first part but then I loved the ending

    • I’d never read anything by her previously and when the book club chose it I thought it sounded really odd. So glad to find my fears were misplaced

    • I loved the characterisation but also the sense of Istanbul – three times I was meant to go there for a work meeting and it got cancelled every time. Now I want to go even more…

  • I absolutely loved this book – I read it a couple of years ago and much of it stays with me: apart from the ending, which I found disappointingly farcical. But it’s definitely a book I’d recommend.


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