10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Elif Shafak

I have sat on this book for a while since finishing reading it – partially as a result of workload; mainly because it, like The Heart’s Invisible Furies and many others, is a book that deserved some time to settle and be absorbed before launching into a review.

The novel revolves around a single character, to whom we are introduced in the opening lines:

Her name was Leila.

Tequila Leila, as she was known to her friends and her clients. Tequila Leila as she was called at home and at work, in that rosewood-coloured house on a cobblestoned cul-de-sac down by the wharf, nestled between a church and a synagogue, among lamp shops and kebab shops – the street that harboured the oldest licensed brothels in Istanbul.

Still, if she were to hear you put it like that, she might take offence and playfully hurl a shoe – one of her high-heeled stilettos.

‘Is, darling, not was … My name is Tequila Leila.’

Never in a thousand years would she agree to be spoken of in the past tense.

Unfortunately, Leila is most definitely now in the past tense as she and the reader

she now realized with a sinking feeling that her heart had just stopped beating, and her breathing had abruptly ceased, and whichever way she looked at her situation there was no denying that she was dead.

No spoilers: we are still on the first page and as Leila’s mind and consciousness drifts in the eponymous ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds of her awareness, we are treated to a series of sensory recollections: her first memory is”about salt – the feel of it on her skin and the taste of it on her tongue”; then “two contrasting tastes: lemon and sugar”, “cardamom coffee – strong, intense, dark”, “the smell and taste of watermelon”… “the taste of single malt whisky”.

From these sensory moments, the story of Leila’s life emerges: born to Binnaz but raised by her increasingly zealous and religious father’s first wife, Suzan; brought up in the somewhat parochial town of Van; the tragedy of her brother Tarkan’s brief life, apparently lamented only by Leila; isolated, neglected, abused; fleeing to Istanbul and life in the Street of Brothels.

The novel works – and works so well – on so many levels. It is on one hand, a celebration and justification of Leila’s life, revealing the humanity behind the superficially taboo life she led on the outskirts of society. It is a celebration, too, of the city of Istanbul, the bridge between East and West, the bridge between past and present, “the city where all the discontented and all the dreamers eventually ended up”; the city is glorious, dirty, violent, beautiful, tragic, captured in a robust and muscular prose.

Istanbul was an illusion. A magician’s trick gone wrong.

Istanbul was a dream that existed solely in the minds of hashish eaters. In truth, there was no Istanbul. There were multiple Istanbuls – struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive.

There was, for instance, an ancient Istanbul designed to be crossed on foot or by boat – the city of itinerant dervishes, fortune-tellers, matchmakers, seafarers, cotton fluffers, rug beaters and porters with wicker baskets on their backs … There was modern Istanbul – an urban sprawl overrun with cars and motorcycles whizzing back and forth, construction trucks laden with building materials for more shopping centres, skyscrapers, industrial sites … Imperial Istanbul versus plebeian Istanbul; global Istanbul versus parochial Istanbul; cosmopolitan Istanbul versus philistine Istanbul; heretical Istanbul versus pious Istanbul; macho Istanbul versus a feminine Istanbul that adopted Aphrodite – goddess of desire and also of strife – as its symbol and protector … Then there was the Istanbul of those who had left long ago, sailing to faraway ports. For them this city would always be a metropolis made of memories, myths and messianic longings, forever elusive like a lover’s face receding in the mist.

All these Istanbuls lived and breathed inside one another, like matryoshka dolls that had come to life.

At its heart, however, the novel is one of friendship. Leila had collected five friends over her tumultuous life: Sabotage Sinan, the son of the lady pharmacist in Van who followed and found Leila when she fled to a new life in Istanbul, juggling an outwardly respectable marriage and job with his friendship with Leila; Nostalgia Nalan, a transgender woman whose depiction is one of the most convincing of a trans woman I have read; Jameelah, the Somalian daughter of a Muslim father and Christian mother who, “like all foreigners… carried with her the shadow of an elsewhere”; the “Dwarf, Pygmy or Thumbling” Zaynab 122 who appended the 122 to her name because she was so “fed up… with people staring at her, and secretly or openly wondering how tall she was, that, in an act of defiance, she had added the measurement to her name”; and Hollywood Humerya who escaped an abusive and violent husband to scrape a living as a singer in nightclubs. A band of outcasts – alien, transgender, dwarf, whore, hypocrite – finding identity and safety and comfort together, finding and forging their own “water family” in place of their blood families.

While it was true that nothing could take the place of a loving, happy blood family, in the absence of one, a good water family could wash away the hurt and pain collected inside like black soot.

Once the remaining ten minutes of consciousness seeps away, Leila’s body enters the systems of Istanbul’s morgue and medical examiner and the friends come to the fore, battling to give Leila’s body the respectful and loving burial it deserves. A more comedic – albeit darkly comedic – note seemed to enter into the narrative at this point, alongside the achingly bitter grief that the friends feel. For me, this section lacked something – perhaps the thing it lacked was Leila – and perhaps misjudged it a touch.

But, oh my God, the final moments of the novel, the final chapter was an explosion of beautiful, charming, lyrical wonders! Any misstep earlier can be easily forgiven in the light of that final chapter.

Ratings:

Overall: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Characters: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Language: ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐

Publisher: Viking

Date: 6 June 2019

Available: Amazon

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