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

TBR Thursday 198…

Episode 198

Yet again, the TBR has dropped – down 1 to 221! I wish this was because I was racing through the books, but in reality it’s because I’ve been abandoning books right, left and centre. It’s a brutal way to get it down, but effective…

Here are a few more that will be rolling off the pile soon…

Factual

Courtesy of Picador via NetGalley. The story of a real female amateur detective operating in the time of Golden Age mystery fiction is irresistible…

The Blurb says: Maud West ran her detective agency in London for more than thirty years, having started sleuthing on behalf of society’s finest in 1905. Her exploits grabbed headlines throughout the world but, beneath the public persona, she was forced to hide vital aspects of her own identity in order to thrive in a class-obsessed and male-dominated world. And – as Susannah Stapleton reveals – she was a most unreliable witness to her own life.

Who was Maud? And what was the reality of being a female private detective in the Golden Age of Crime?

Interweaving tales from Maud West’s own ‘casebook’ with social history and extensive original research, Stapleton investigates the stories Maud West told about herself in a quest to uncover the truth.

With walk-on parts by Dr Crippen and Dorothy L. Sayers, Parisian gangsters and Continental blackmailers, The Adventures of Maud West, Lady Detective is both a portrait of a woman ahead of her time and a deliciously salacious glimpse into the underbelly of ‘good society’ during the first half of the twentieth century.

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Fiction

Courtesy of Viking via NetGalley. I know nothing about this one but have heard good things about the author, and the blurb makes it sound wonderfully weird and weirdly wonderful. Plus it’s set in Istanbul, so hopefully will make for an interesting detour on my Around the World challenge…

The Blurb says: “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…”

For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life – friends who are now desperately trying to find her. . . 

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Thriller

Courtesy of Orion via NetGalley. RJ Ellory is one of those authors who is great when he’s on form, but sometimes he’s not. Hopefully this “what if?” thriller will be one of the great ones…

The Blurb says: IT WAS THE SHOT HEARD AROUND THE WORLD
On 22nd November 1963, John F. Kennedy’s presidential motorcade rode through Dealey Plaza. He and his wife Jackie greeted the crowds on a glorious Friday afternoon in Dallas, Texas.

BUT WHAT IF IT MISSED?
Mitch Newman is a photojournalist based out of Washington, D.C. His phone never rings. When it does, a voice he hasn’t heard in years will tell him his former fiancée Jean has taken her own life.

WHEN THE TRUTH IS BIGGER THAN ALL THE LIES
Jean was an investigative reporter working the case of a lifetime. Somewhere in the shreds of her investigation is the truth behind her murder.

WHO WOULD BELIEVE IT?

For Mitch, piecing together the clues will become a dangerous obsession: one that will lead him to the dark heart of his country – and into the crossfire of a conspiracy…

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Fiction on Audio

I tried to listen to this when it came out and abandoned it, partly because Reese Witherspoon’s accent is so Southern I was struggling to catch some of the words, but mainly because I was uneasy about the publication of the book – I still feel Harper Lee was taken advantage of at the end of her life. However, having recently re-read To Kill a Mockingbird and just finished the fascinating Furious Hours by Casey Cep (review to follow), about the true crime novel Lee tried and failed to write, I find I’m ready to approach this one now, more as an interesting insight on Lee herself, perhaps, than with a real anticipation of it being a great novel. If Reese is too much for me, I have a paper copy to fall back on…

The Blurb says: Originally written in the mid-1950s, Go Set a Watchman was the novel Harper Lee first submitted to her publishers before To Kill a Mockingbird. Assumed to have been lost, the manuscript was discovered in late 2014.

Go Set a Watchman features many of the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird some twenty years later. Returning home to Maycomb to visit her father, Jean Louise Finch—Scout—struggles with issues both personal and political, involving Atticus, society, and the small Alabama town that shaped her.

Exploring how the characters from To Kill a Mockingbird are adjusting to the turbulent events transforming mid-1950s America, Go Set a Watchman casts a fascinating new light on Harper Lee’s enduring classic. Moving, funny and compelling, it stands as a magnificent novel in its own right.

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NB All blurbs and covers taken from Goodreads.

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So…what do you think? Do any of these tempt you?