author Elif Shafak

Booker 2019: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

30th August 2019

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak


Reviewed by Jill Glenn

Meet Tequila Leila: sex worker, widow, friend of immigrants and underdogs and the dispossessed. In the moments before 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World opens, Tequila Leila has been casually murdered, and her body dumped in a wheelie bin. In the end is the beginning: ‘Although her heart had stopped beating, her brain was resisting,’ Elif Shafak tells us. ‘It entered into a state of heightened awareness… She recalled things she did not even know she was capable of remembering… The first memory that came to her mind was about salt – the feel of it on her skin and the taste of it on her tongue.’

This is a clever vehicle for reconstructing the story of a life, and Shafak, an award-winning novelist who is the most widely read female writer in Turkey, handles it very well. In chapters headed One Minute, Two Minutes etc (the time span from the moment of ‘death’), Shafak uses smell as a way in to Tequila Leila’s past and present. The salt, for example, recalls her birth, when the midwife rubbed her skin with salt flakes to encourage her to cry. Lemon and sugar link in to her early childhood; cardamom coffee takes her to her early 20s, to a brothel near the harbour in Istanbul. Interspersed with the main narrative are the stories of her five friends, whose lives are no less shocking and painful than hers, out of whom she has created a new family.

Underpinning the whole construct is the nature of the city itself – ‘Istanbul was an illusion. A magician’s trick gone wrong’ – richly and resonantly drawn, both brutal and beautiful.

‘How stubborn she was, how dangerously rebellious her soul,’ Shafak says, at the point at which newborn Leila (or Leyla, as she was then, before she ‘traded the y of yesterday for the i of infinity’) is refusing to open her mouth and embrace life. Maybe she would have been better to continue to deny herself the opportunity, for, wonderfully told as 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is, it is an account of a hard existence, in which family dysfunction and childhood trauma lead, almost inevitably, to a life on the margins, where abuse and powerlessness are endemic. Tequila Leila is a strong woman; she remains hopeful, generous, strong-willed – but her experiences are hard to read, despite all that. For all her flaws, she’s possibly a little too perfect: you certainly can’t fail to like her.

The second half of the story, after the ten minutes and 38 seconds of the title have elapsed, focuses on the attempts of ‘the five’ – the friends in whom Leila has placed her trust – to locate her body and give her a proper funeral. There’s something blackly comic, even farcical, about much of this – police chases, riotous driving, a fall into an open grave, a teetotaller getting drunk on industrial strength vodka – which sits at odds with the seriousness of the first half. It’s welcome light relief in many ways, although it continues to tell us unpalatable truths about those on the periphery of Turkish society.

It is no surprise to learn that Shafak has a masters' in Gender and Women's Studies and a PhD in Political Science and Political Philosophy, or that she is a women’s/minority/LGBT rights advocate. This is a novel that springs from knowledge and from anger, but Shafak’s skill lies in creating something beautiful out of violent realities, giving voice to the voiceless. Her writing is elegant and fluid, sharp and engaging. I’m so glad to have discovered her.

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