Generosity of spirit…
😀 😀 😀 😀 😀
Tequila Leila’s body is dead, but her brain has not yet shut completely down. As her consciousness slowly fades, she finds herself drifting through memories of her life – the childhood that made her the woman she would become, her family, her loves, her friends. And along the way, we are given a picture of the underbelly of Istanbul, of those on the margins finding ways to live in a society that rejects them.
Despite the fact that the main character has just been murdered and is now lying dead in a rubbish bin hoping that someone will discover her body, this is a wonderfully uplifting, life-affirming story. Time ticks down minute by minute for Leila, each marked by an episode from her life, often triggered by a memory of an aroma or a taste, such as the lemons the women used to make the wax for their legs, or the cardamom coffee that Leila loved. And as we follow Leila through her memories, we learn about the people who have had the greatest impact on her life. Her father, hoping always for a son. Her mother, a second wife married as little more than a child to provide that son that the first wife has failed to give. Her uncle, a man who will disrupt her childhood and change her possible futures irrevocably. And most of all her friends – five people she meets along the way who become bound together closer than any family, through ties of love and mutual support in a world that has made them outsiders.
Nalan now remembered an evening in a restaurant in Asmalimescit where they often dined, the three of them. Stuffed vine leaves and fried mussels (D/Ali had ordered them for everyone, though mostly for Leila), pistachio baklava and quince with clotted cream (Leila had ordered them for everyone, though mostly for D/Ali), a bottle of raqi (Nalan had ordered it for everyone, though mostly for herself).
It’s always difficult when reviewing this kind of fictional biography to avoid saying too much, since most of the joy comes from the slow revelations that bring us to where we know the story ends – with Leila’s murder. I loved this one so much I’m going to err on the side of caution and say nothing about Leila’s life, or the lives of her friends, other than that the book is not so much about how they are beaten down by the unfairness of their lives, but rather about how their mutual friendship helps them transcend their circumstances. The prose is wonderful, the many stories feel utterly true and real, and they are beautifully brought together to create an intensely moving picture of a life that might pass unremarked and unmourned by society, but showing how remarkable such a life can be in its intimate details and how mourning is a tribute gained by a loving, generous soul regardless of status.
But as well as the people, Shafak creates a wonderful picture of the darker parts of Istanbul, where those whom society rejects hustle to live – “fallen” women, transgender people, people with physical disabilities, political dissidents, those who simply feel they don’t quite fit the life that has been allocated to them, by their families, by their religion, by the state, by fate. It’s an often exotic picture (to my Western eyes, at least), with wonderfully sensuous descriptions of food, aromas, sounds, colours.
Slowly, dawn was breaking. Streaks of colour – peach bellinis, orange martinis, strawberry margaritas, frozen negronis – streamed above the horizon, east to west. Within a matter of seconds, calls to prayer from the surrounding mosques reverberated around her, none of them synchronized. Far in the distance, the Bosphorus, waking from its turquoise sleep, yawned with force.
And there’s a sense of danger always hovering, with its corollary of exhilaration. Without any polemics, Shafak lets us see how this society works – still repressive to our Western eyes, but with a tension between those of a conservative cast looking East and those who look with envious longing towards the liberalism and comparative wealth of nearby Europe. I felt it gave me a much deeper understanding of this country which is often the subject of debate as to whether we should welcome it into the family of European nations or reject it as too “Arabic” – our opinions swayed backwards and forwards as each new leader changes the direction Turkey faces. A country that itself is in some senses as liminal and marginalised as the characters Shafak creates for us.
A wonderful book that moved me to tears and laughter, that angered me and comforted me and, most of all, that made me love these characters with all their quirks and flaws and generosity of spirit. One of the books of the year for me and, obviously, highly recommended.
When men asked – and they often did – why she insisted on spelling ‘Leyla’ as ‘Leila’, and whether by doing so she was trying to make herself seem Western or exotic, she would laugh and say that one day she went to the bazaar and traded the ‘y’ of ‘yesterday’ with the ‘i’ of ‘infinity’, and that was that.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Viking at Penguin UK.