Author(s): Elif Shafak
The new novel from the best-selling author of The Bastard of Istanbul. '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 . . . ' Our brains stay active for ten minutes after our heart stops beating. For Tequila Leila, each minute brings with it a new memory: growing up with her father and his two wives in a grand old house in a quiet Turkish town; watching the women gossip and wax their legs while the men went to mosque; sneaking cigarettes and Western magazines on her way home from school; running away to Istanbul to escape an unwelcome marriage; falling in love with a student who seeks shelter from a riot in the brothel where she works. Most importantly, each memory reminds Leila of the five friends she met along the way - the friends who are now desperately trying to find her.
Elif Shafak’s novel is a powerful and unflinching exploration of women’s rights in Turkey, and of their control over their bodies and sexuality. The novel opens with Leila, recently murdered and dumped in a rubbish skip. As her mind closes down (in 10 minutes and 38 seconds) each moment triggers a memory giving the reader a window into her past experiences that shaped her life and that of her five closest friends. Taking us to her childhood in Van — a childhood of secrets and deceits, we are not surprised by her decision to flee to Istanbul as a teen. Her childhood is coloured by neglect and abuse. With an ignorant and suspicious family that will do anything to save face in a small community, Leila is left with little choice. Unprepared for a city and completely out of her depth she ends up in a brothel under the charge of Bitter Ma. While the madam is better than some and finally does grant Leila her freedom, the privations of being a prostitute with few rights and no financial autonomy weigh heavily on Leila and her colleagues — there are few choices available for women in her position in a strikingly patriarchal society, a society that is also dominated by political unrest and dictatorial behaviour. Yet life is also culturally rich and intriguing in the relationships that Leila has with her five friends. Shafak is a damning of Turkish society and the roles that women have been, and continue to be, expected to play in this modern country. She deftly explores west/east and secular/religious tensions and the hypocrisies as well as the personal crises that are inflicted by these conflicts. What does it mean to be transsexual in this world, to be an independent widow, to be educated or a prostitute in this world? While the novel shines a light on these issues, at the same time light is being shone on the author, Elif Shfak (and other female authors) — harassed on social media and investigated by prosecutors after complaints that by writing fictional works that tackle challenging issues she is condoning child abuse and sexual violence! 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World is a novel about tough issues, but it also hopeful — Leila is a survivor and she and her friends are resourceful and loyal, and have depths of humanity that one could argue come from confronting the status quo and marking out their own territory and beliefs, living without compromise of thought even when choices are limited. With its interesting premise and structure, the novel is compelling and Leila is an incredible character who is the still point at the centre, strong and resilient, of a turbulent and damaging vortex.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019