When I told my sister I was reading 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, she very excitedly informed me that she had met the author at an event in Pakistan, “she’s incredibly charming” was her description before she went on to tell me that her 2009 offering The Forty Rules of Love was one of the most widely read books in that country, with even the Prime Minister, Imran Khan recommending it to the youth of the country. Shafak is a prolific writer and in the 23 years since the publication of her first book, has published a further eighteen, twelve of which are fiction. That’s an impressive turnover for someone who also works as an academic, public speaker, political scientist and women’s rights activist.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World has the potential to be an amazing book. It consists of three parts but it’s more like two very different books smashed together to create one slightly underwhelming read. The first part of the book is narrated by Leila Tequila, a sex worker who has come to an unfortunate end and finds herself discarded in a municipal bin. Although her body lays to waste, her mind is still active and that’s where the novel, at least the first part, gets its name from. According to a Canadian study the mind has been known to stay active for up to 10 minutes and 38 seconds after a person (body) is officially declared dead. This fascinating concept allows our protagonist to share short vignettes from her life, starting with memories that had abandoned her in life, her birth. Each chapter is a countdown to 10 Minutes 38 Seconds, when her mind finally stops and joins her body in death.
Leila is born into a polygamous family. Her father, a well-to-do tailor, spends most of his time in the city, while her mother, her aunt and Leila live in the Eastern village of Van. At her birth, Leila’s young mother is begrudgingly convinced to hand over her daughter to the older wife, as she is unable to have children of her own, and Leila’s mother can hopefully have more, ideally a son. So Leila grows up believing her mother is her aunt and her aunt is her mother. This lays bare the first of the families secrets. The second, far more harrowing, occurs on a family trip to the seaside, when Leila, aged 6, is sexually abused by her uncle, her fathers brother.
With each chapter we learn a little more about Leila’s life. From her school days, where she isn’t very academic and doesn’t have any friends other than a young boy, Sinan (or Sabotage as he comes to be known) himself an outcast on account of his mother being a single (widowed) parent and her being a female pharmacist, something almost unheard of in Van in the 1960’s where customs and traditions keep women in their places, ideally marital homes. We learn about her biological mothers mental health, the birth and death of her brother, her fathers decent into an increasingly radical adoption of Islam, especially after the death of his son, which he blames himself for, and the consequences this has on the rest of the family and we learn more about the abuse young Leila suffers at the hands of her uncle. Her fear, her guilt and her shame keep the child Leila silent until eventually the truth is revealed, and Leila’s horrors turn into even more heartbreak as her family, her father, believes her but refuses to do anything other than arrange a marriage for his teenage daughter, to protect the honour of the family.
Leila runs away to Istanbul, borrowing money from her friend Sabotage for the bus ride. She eventually finds herself working in a legal brothel where the madam becomes fond of her. She meets the second of her friends, Nalan while listening to his beautiful singing from across her building in a furniture factory. They meet again, a year later in a prison cell, only this time Nalan is a woman, but Leila recognises her voice and so begins their lifelong friendship. Her other friends include Zainab122, a dwarf from a Lebanese village who ends up working in the brothel as a cleaner and befriends Leila when she reads her future in tea leaves. Jameela, originally from Somalia, finds herself in Turkey after being trafficked and finally Humeyra, or Hollywood Humeyra, as she becomes known after a series of plastic surgeries to alter her appearance in order to hide her from her abusive husband and family. A few pages are dedicated to each of these characters, known as The Five, as Leila recalls her life.
One of my favourite things about the first part of the book is how each chapter begins with a sensory experience, usually of taste, which goes on to evoke the memory Leila shares with us. I also love that Elif Shafak has included so many historic events in the story to give us a sense of time and what was happening in the wider world. Leila reads a newspaper from 1963 recalling Malcom X’s arrest, the Big Freeze in England, Women gaining the right to vote and how badly the Vietnam war is going for the Americans. In 1973 the Bosphorus Bridge is completed and in May 1977 the Taksim Square massacre forms the background of another life altering event in Leila’s story.
Part two starts with a shift of narration and of focus: away from the mind and to the body. Leila’s cadaver arrives at the morgue into the hands of the medical examiner, a man who prefers the silent company of the dead to that of the living and once the examination is complete, he assigns her a place in the Cemetery of the Companionless, a place reserved mostly for refugees who wash up on the Turkish shore, and those on the periphery of society. The kindly assistant to the examiner, Kameel, suggests releasing Leila’s body to her five friends, waiting outside, but as this is somehow against the rules, she is swiftly processed and buried.
The tone shifts once more and this time we find ourselves with The Five, as they mourn the death of their beloved Leila. I found this part of the book really difficult to get into. What begins as a beautiful, sensory story somehow becomes a comedy of errors as these five characters come together to rectify a wrong done to their friend. You can almost forgive the cliches and the over descriptive nature of the first part of the book, because the story itself is strong, it becomes more difficult to do so in the second part. This group of friends, each with their own unimaginative and stereotypical backstory, are not the people the reader has invested in. They are so desperately cliched, from the way that they speak, with every other sentence ending in honey or darling, to their names: Sabotage Sinan, the only man in the group who, it transpires, has always been deeply madly in love with Leila, feisty transvestite Nostalgia Nalan, Zainab122, the numbers signifying her height, Hollywood Humeyra, a singer, dancer and star of a few erotic movies and Jameelah, the Black friend and an illegal immigrant, somehow saved from having a cheesy nickname.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World left me feeling frustrated, not only by the change of pace and narration in the second part of the book, but also with some of the language. There is no doubt in my mind that Elif Shafak is a good writer, however this book was heavily depended on metaphors and similes, some of which felt clunky and overly used. My biggest frustration was with her character development, every single one of them felt like a checklist exercise. I wanted to know more about the friends and their backgrounds, I wanted to see more of their lives in order to really root for them. Shafak creates a world in this relatively short novel that is so neat and easily compartmentalised that it lacks the grit of powerful storytelling. As obnoxious as it sounds, coming from a non-writer, I wonder if this book was a little rushed to keep up with Shafaks plentiful writing schedule.
The Five become a sort of ragtag action hero group, zipping around the streets of Istanbul in the night on their mission to give their friend the burial she deserves. What started as a novel about women and violence transcends quickly into something farcical. Thankfully it doesn’t turn it into a whodunnit or a story of seeking revenge or Justice. It’s a books about friendship and love, and accordingly the five, motivated by their love for Leila act out their desperate plan. Mercifully the third and final part of the book reads more like the first part but also makes you yearn for what this book could have been.
As a Muslim reader I have to admit I found 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World an uncomfortable read. Without fail every chapter had a dig at one or other Islamic practise and no effort was made to separate cultural practises and wayward human behaviour from the Muslim characters. Representation matters, and this book paints Muslims and Islam in colours that felt entirely inappropriate and unpleasant to me. In one scene Leila’s father explains that people are allowed a single sin in this life, anything more and they are condemned to eternal damnation. He goes on to describe the pits of hell with the heads of demons and Gods angry voice shouting at sinners for eternity. When leila’s brother, Tarkan, is diagnosed with Downs Syndrome, her father decides to give up his job as a successful tailor, as this diagnosis, to his Eastern mind, can only be a punishment from God. He becomes increasingly religious and begins to rage his own “holy war” in their home. She is forbidden from watching TV, reading magazines and hanging out with her only friend Sinan. Later, on a walk in the village with her mother she sees a Yaazidi man being harassed by another group of men. When our caring and compassionate child voices her concerns to her mother, she responds by calling the man “evil” and Leila goes on to question her mother on why God would create people only for him to be angry at them for what they are, what he created.
There is also a scene where Laila recalls visiting a gay man in a swanky hotel room. His father, a deeply religious conservative man, arranges hookers for his son in order to cure his homosexuality. The story is littered with examples like this and each “bad” character is also described as religious. On the other hand everything “western” is synonymous with freedom and rights. There is a scene in the latter part of the book where Nalan recalls a conversation with D|Ali, who grows up in Germany but is sent back to Istanbul by his Conservative/Religious father after his sister has to have her stomach pumped from consuming too much alcohol. He asks Nalan what he thinks is the biggest difference between Western European Cities and Istanbul and she answers “Here women need to carry a safety pin in case a man pricks them” I wonder if Elif Shafak has ever ridden a London bus. Nothing that happens in this story is confined to any country, culture or religion, but at times it feels like the authors goes to pains to make it so.
I’ll admit I was surprised when I learnt this was nominated for the Booker Prize, that’s not to say it’s a terrible book, but it just isn’t in league with the likes of Bernadine Everisto, Margaret Atwood or Jeanette Winterson (I’m sorry, don’t hate me). The concept and the title are excellent, unfortunately the execution is lacking. I’m not remotely put off by Elif Shafaks works however, especially her back catalogue, and I hope I will get around to reading more from her.
Originally published in May 2019 by Viking Press
Author: Elif Shafak