10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World … a review

My friend sent me this book because she thought I’d enjoy it. I really did. I haven’t read a Turkish author since Pamuk, and this book by Elif Shafak thoroughly hit the spot. This novel is the story of Tequila Leila, and how she came to be dying in a dumpster in Istanbul. The circumstances that led her there form her final memories that last 10 minutes and 38 seconds while her mind processes the highlights of her life before shutting down.

It takes courageous storytelling to give readers the ending upfront. In the first couple of pages, we know our protagonist dies at the end. This hook then leads into the whole flashback. As Shafak weaves the parable of Leila’s life, we are taken on a journey of discovery. Turkish culture, foods, families come to life. But more universal emotions are drawn out too, unrequited love, friendships and society’s treatment of the ‘unmentionables’. Shafak’s writing is deliberate and has no excesses. Her words are free-flowing, but at the same time, there is thorough discipline and structure in her chapters. Take, for instance, the beauty of this quote

Grief is a swallow,” he said. “One day you wake up and you think it’s gone, but it’s only migrated to some other place, warming its feathers. Sooner or later, it will return and perch in your heart again.

elif shafak

The latter is probably the backbone of this book. When Leila eventually rebels against her family and becomes a sex worker (no spoilers here, we find this out pretty quickly), readers see how she navigates life. She collects a motley crowd of people around her, including a trans lady, a gay man, and a Communist. This group of her people band together to protect themselves from the treatment that the ‘mainstream’ metes out to them. This book holds a mirror to society, unabashedly.

Turns out Shafak is a fantastic speaker too. I watched this TED Talk of hers and was thoroughly mesmerised. There is a special place in my heart for intelligent women who use their positions to raise awareness and make a difference to the causes they support. I will be reading more of her books for sure, and this one might just be the find of the quarter for me.

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