Tequila Leila, a Turkish prostitute in her 40s, lies murdered in a rubbish bin. Her brain, for the first ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds after her death is still working – remembering, sensing, calling up memories and sensations from her life. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak tells not just the story of one woman’s life through these disjointed recollections but conjures a beautiful but unsettling portrait of Istanbul and its shifting population.
This is a deeply sensual novel and Leila’s memories are each sparked by sensations, each chapter (or minute of her ebbing consciousness) opening with a different taste or smell: watermelon, spicy goat stew, soil, cardamom coffee, lemon and sugar, sulphuric acid, strawberry cake. These smells take her back in a rather Proustian manner to a particular moment in her life, starting from her birth in 1947 in village in the East of Turkey through to just before her death outside a seedy nightclub in the capital. So while we start with a body and may be anticipating a murder mystery or a puzzle to be unravelled, it is instead a gradually unfolding history of one woman – a story of resilience and hope over prejudice and the patriarchy.
Her memory surged forth, eager and diligent, collecting pieces of a life that she was speeding to a close. She recalled things she did not even know she was capable of remembering, things she believed to be lost forever. Time became fluid, a fast flow of recollections seeping into one another, the past and present inseparable.
Leila’s memories are bound up with those she loved – she calls them ‘the five’. Sabotage Sinan, her only childhood friend; Nostalgia Nalan, a trans woman; Jameelah, a victim of human trafficking; Zaynab122, a Lebanese cleaner with dwarfism, and nightclub singer Hollywood Humeyra. Like Leila they are the dispossessed, the forgotten, the discriminated against – and through their own stories Shafak reveals the various forms of rejection and cruelty that have led them to Istanbul and each other. Having herself run away from sexual abuse and the threat of a forced marriage, Leila creates her own family out of this group of misfits, learning more from them about what is important (‘What was love if it wasn’t nursing someone’s pain as if it were your own?’) than she had learnt from her unforgiving birth family.
This is very much a book of two halves, and for me the shift in tone in the second half of the book didn’t quite work. Having told Leila’s story alongside pen portraits of the five friends, the action moves to the efforts of the friends to give Leila a proper burial. There are elements of slapstick and farce that seem a little forced, but Shafak is making a point about friendship and about the continuing practice of burying the outcasts of society in unmarked graves in the Cemetery of the Companionless, a real place. The final section (‘spirit’ – which follows the ‘mind’ and ‘body’ sections) ends the book on a lyrical and lovely note.
Elif Shafak is a political activist/writer and her message sometimes overwhelms the plot. You may feel she has shoe-horned in issues like violence against women, religious extremism, social inequality, homophobia, police corruption, patriarchal oppression. I ended up forgiving her this because I loved the way memories are conjured, and the way in which time turns upon itself so that a dead body becomes a living breathing woman. It also feels like an important novel – ultimately a love letter to tolerance and friendship, and to Istanbul: a ‘liquid city’ where ‘everything was constantly shifting and dissolving’. Imperfect and messy, abused but beautiful. A bit like Tequila Leila herself.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak is published by Viking, 320 pages.
Elif Shafak fan? Try The Forty Rules of Love.