10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

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).

Elif Shafak

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.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Book 4 of 20

41 thoughts on “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

  1. I’m so glad you liked this so much, FictionFan. What an interesting and innovative way to go about telling a story. On the surface, it seems so dark, but I can also see how it’s, as you say, uplifting. And what a fascinating setting, too! And just from the bits you’ve shared, I can see how the writing would draw you in. It sounds intriguing!

    • Yes, starting with a murder and a body in a bin sets up expectations of a dark and probably bleak read, but it’s really quite the reverse. She doesn’t gloss over the difficult subjects but it’s all about the human spirit overcoming adversity and so becomes wonderfully uplifting! A new favourite author, I think… 😀

  2. Wow, I went immediately went to put a hold on “10 Minutes”, but I can’t get a copy from my library. It looks like it isn’t going to be published here in the US or as an eBook for a while. I am going to keep trying to find it though, because you have me hooked.

    • Oh, I hope they get it in soon! I’ve kinda stopped checking US publication dates because they no longer let Brits review on Amazon US so I don’t visit the site any more except to pick up links. It really is a wonderful book – I hope you enjoy it when you manage to get your hands on a copy… 😀

  3. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a premise like this one. What an achievement! And what an impression it made on you. After reading it, does it still resonate strongly with you?

    • It makes it seem as if it’ll be a really dark, bleak read, doesn’t it, and yet it’s almost exactly the opposite! She doesn’t gloss over the dark bits but it’s all about human resilience. It definitely does, especially since coincidentally Istanbul has been all over the news this last few weeks with the election going on there. It’s one of those books that has actually changed my perception of a place… 😀

  4. I do like these reflective looking-back stories when they are well written and I really appreciate that you have shared your enjoyment of this one. I love that the story is in an unfamiliar setting and look forward to that part of the experience when reading it. The book is already on order at our library and I’m now on the hold list for when it arrives.

    • I loved the Istanbul setting and the way she did it – she just showed us the place and the people and the way of life and left any judgements up to the reader. So refreshing to get all kinds of diversity presented to us without an obvious political agenda behind them, and with a kind of sympathy for all involved. I hope you get hold of it soon, and that it gives you as much pleasure as it did me! 😀

    • Isn’t it strange? It seems as if it will so dark and bleak, and then turns out to be the opposite! She doesn’t gloss over the difficult subjects, but always shows the strength of human resilience – great stuff! 😀

  5. This sounds excellent – when books give close friendships the same kind of attention that is normally given to romantic love in fiction, it makes me so happy. I will definitely be picking this up on the strength of your review!

    • She does it so well, too – real friendship rather than idealistic ones, if you know what I mean. If you do read it, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! 😀

  6. This does sound rather special. Reading it will just make me wish I had been to Istanbul. I’ve tried twice and each time the business trip got cancelled. Guess I just have to pay for it myself.

    • Ha! I don’t think you want to stay in the areas Leila and her friends frequented when you go though! But it is a wonderful book and has made me understand a bit better the tensions in Turkey between east and west. Plus it’s so beautifully written… 😀

    • Oh, good! This is one of those rare books I wish I could persuade the whole world to read! When you get to it, I hope it gives you as much pleasure as it did me… 😀

  7. I love that last quote and you’re right — her prose is delightful. Never read any of her books, but now I can see what I’ve been missing. Thanks for enlightening me, FF!

    • The writing is beautiful, and so full of warmth! This was my introduction to her too, but I’ll definitely be reading her earlier books and anything else she produces in the future – a new favourite! 😀

      • I have been intrigued by the title of this book since I first saw it. But I was afraid to read more about it because I can’t afford to want to read another book. However, I couldn’t help myself when I saw you had given it 5 stars, and yes, now I want to read it!

        • Hahaha! Sorry about that! But you won’t regret it – the book is just as intriguing as the title. Anyway, I’ll just keep going on about it till everybody reads it, so you might as well do it now… 😉

    • Yes, perfect for Around the World – I do like when I feel I’ve actually learned something about the place the book is set in. I suspect you’d love this one – I reckon you’d fall in love with the characters just as much as I did… 😀

    • Thank you! Yes, it like finding hidden treasure! I haven’t come across her before but I can’t wait to read more of her stuff now – I shall check out The Architect’s Apprentice… 😀

  8. I think I’d enjoy this book-and not because it starts with a murder! ha

    I don’t think I’ve ever read a book set in Istanbul before, but I’m curious about your reference to Europe accepting it into its fold-did they ‘apply’ or whatever that means?

    • I’d never “visited” Istanbul before either and this was a great way to do it! I’m not sure if they’ve ever formally applied but there have been discussions about it for many years. The EU only accepts democracies and Turkey sometimes is and sometimes isn’t. Also, although I’m not sure there are any rules about it, the countries in the EU are all from the Christian tradition whereas Turkey is mostly Muslim – it’s not really Islampohobia (although there’s some of that, of course) but it menas that there are big cultural and social differences. Every now and then Turkey becomes secular and looks to the West, but then they swing back to a more middle-Eastern outlook. I think it’ll be a long time yet before the EU is ready to fully embrace them – or them us!

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