#RivetingReviews: Rosie Goldsmith reviews 10 MINUTES 38 SECONDS IN THIS STRANGE WORLD by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a passionate feminist and fearless defender of human rights, a distinguished academic and inspirational public speaker and, every couple of years, she reminds us that she is also a gifted novelist. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is her seventeenth book, her ninth written in English, and like all her novels so far, it is beautiful and brave. Her protagonist, Tequila Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul, is also beautiful and brave – but she’s an outcast, discarded by her family and society. When we meet her for the first time she is dead, stuffed into a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. How was this vibrant soul condemned to such a horrible demise? 

In the ten minutes, thirty-eight seconds it takes for Leila’s brain to shut down after her murder, she spins back through her memories, telling her own story, from her birth in 1947 to her death in 1990.

‘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 …’

The novel takes place over ten minutes and ten chapters, each chapter dedicated to one memory, one minute, one significant year in Leila’s life, related partly chronologically, but mainly according to her archive of memory, the tastes and smells (lemon, sugar, coffee, goat stew …) rising to the surface of Leila’s brain as she lies dying. The ten chapters are themselves part of a superstructure with three divisions, entitled ‘The Mind’, ‘The Body’ and ‘The Soul’. Then there are the five friends, Leila’s ‘safety net’ – all outcasts who are damaged and different like her; each of them is treated to a narrative of equal length.

It’s a clever and satisfying format, allowing the teeming narrative to breath. Reading it, I felt that if this lush, inventive, fantastical novel were not contained within such a tight structure it might burst at the seams. The character studies are beautifully rich and evocative, as fairy-tale as they are real; and the many decades, characters, locations, ideas and events described combine to create a sweeping international novel, a vast global city of the imagination contained within the walls of a brilliant storytelling mind.

Leila is born in Van in eastern Turkey in 1947 to Binnaz and Haroun the Tailor. The deeply unhappy young mother has already suffered several miscarriages, and when her baby is taken from her to be brought up by Haroun’s second wife in the same house, Binnaz goes mad. One of the fundamental tragedies of the novel, this breakdown is described in shattering detail. At one point Binnaz feels she is being pelted by snowballs.

The unflinching but sympathetic portrayal of the suffering of women, the injustice, pain, misogyny and trauma they suffer, is a feature of all Elif Shafak’s novels. But so is the joy. In 10 Minutes 38 Seconds we also witness the secrets of the Muslim women of the closed community Leila grows up in. On ‘waxing day’, behind closed doors, the village women strip off their clothes and become wild and bawdy, shrieking with joy and laughter.

All her life Leila is forced to keep secrets, most of them dark and painful, such as her mother’s true identity and the child abuse Leila endures from the age of six. Childhood is important in all Shafak’s novels – her protagonists always return there, not just to its magic and innocence, but to its betrayal and dangers. The child Leila dreams of escape to the city, to Istanbul, a place far away and exotic, where important events take place:

‘Nations became civilised in three fundamental ways, they said, science, education and beauty contests … [Istanbul is] The city where all the discontented and dreamers eventually ended up.’

At the age of sixteen, overcome with guilt and sadness, and betrayed by her own family, Leila walks out of her front door and takes a bus to Istanbul. Her new life begins – one of alcohol, betrayal, prostitution and slow death. She discovers quickly that Istanbul is not ‘a city of opportunities but a city of scars’.

A whole chapter is devoted to Istanbul, that ‘liquid city’ of misfits and miracles, that ‘manic city’, undergoing massive change in the decades of the Cold War, leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the revolutions in Eastern Europe, Turkey’s rapid modernisation and Leila’s untimely death in 1990. 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds is a novel about death. However Elif Shafak’s beautiful prose and humour give this grim topic a grandeur that matches the ebullience and glamour of her wonderful protagonist, Leila; so much so that the final scenes in the morgue and the Cemetery of the Companionless become a magnificent and compassionate tribute.

Reviewed by Rosie Goldsmith


Written by Elif Shafak

Published by Penguin Viking (2019)

Rosie Goldsmith is Director of the European Literature Network. She was a BBC senior broadcaster for 20 years and is today an arts journalist, presenter, linguist, and with Max Easterman a media trainer for ‘Sounds Right’.

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Category: ReviewsJuly 2019


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