Elif Shafak is no stranger to the world of bibliophiles, especially after her smash hit, The Forty Rules of Love which took the world by a storm. She of course, has more household names like The Bastard of Istanbul, The Architects Apprentice, and The Flea Palace, to name a few.
Her last book, Three Daughters of Eve was quite underwhelming so diving into this was taking a chance again – because for a reader, being forgiving is second nature. We renew our faith in the person, no questions asked, and I’m glad I did.
Haunting yet beautiful, real and unbelievable, tender and harrowing, compassionate yet powerful, a view from the outside yet inclusive – These were the thoughts crossing my mind reading 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World – a book that jolts you awake so harshly with its truths, that the Turkish author is under fire from the Turkish government itself with threats for jail time – making her a true braveheart in this day and age.
The novel is in parts: the mind, the body and the soul and begins by introducing the protagonist, already dead, in a trash can in a side street of the city. The title and story takes its cue from research that shows (as a medical examiner in the book reflects during an autopsy),“observed persistent brain activity in people who had died …. for as much as ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds,” where the main character remembers her life in a flash and associates memories to tastes and scents, telling us her story from her birth, her childhood to adulthood.
This is a story about a prostitute known as Tequila Leila. A girl who has seen unspeakable cruelties from childhood – from being raised by the first wife of her father & later finding out his second wife, who is battling mental illness, is her actual mother, to sexual abuse and child rape at the hands of her own family member (for which she is silenced when she speaks up about it years later), to eventually escaping to go to “the city where all the discontented and all the dreamers eventually ended up” (i.e. Istanbul) when she is forced to marry after the confession of rape is made to her now devout father.
Unfortunately the city of Istanbul has circumstances such where she is forced to become a sex worker to make ends meet – but it’s also where she meets ‘the five‘ – friends, who like her, are social outcasts in an increasingly intolerable country, but so kind hearted and her very own safety net and family – away from the life that was cruel to her. They are, Sabotage Sinan (who has been hopelessly in love with Leila since childhood and from the very hometown she escaped), Nostalgia Nalan (a sassy transvestite who is often humorous), Zaynab122 (a religious dwarf from a Lebanese mountain village), Hollywood Humeyra (an overweight singer and former porn star), and Jameelah (a beautiful Somalian who was tricked into sex slavery and shipped to Istanbul.)
This is a story of innocence, sexual abuse, civil war, hard truths and despite of all these, strong friendships that were formed. From how Leila’s life takes her, regardless of what the city or life made her or what people thought, to a point of getting the love and respect she always yearned for from those who knew and loved her, in death.
Elif Shafak has given a voice unsparingly to society’s untouchables: immigrants, underdogs, those who are considered freaks, and more importantly (because the protagonist of the book is one), sex workers – in a portrayal of violence, heartbreak, bleak truths, grief and the reality we choose to ignore that exists. This is a story which made me teary and sob at one point, too.
Facts: The Cemetery of the Companionless in Kilyos is a real place, as is the street of brothels & historical events such as the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam in 1968 & the Massacre in Istanbul on International Workers’ Day in 1977 where snipers from the roof of the Intercontinental Hotel opened fire on the crowds – which is today, the Marmara Hotel.
Favourite quotes: “One of the endless tragedies of human history was that pessimists were better at surviving than optimists – which meant that, logically speaking, humanity carried the genes of people who did not believe in humanity.”
“We must do what we can to mend our lives, we owe that to ourselves – but we need to be careful not to break others while achieving that.”
“We’re being tested every day. If you say you are a true friend, there’ll come a time when your dedication will be tested. Cosmic forces will ask you to prove how much you really care.”
“It’s a serious thing to believe in someone. You can’t just say it like that. It’s a big commitment, to believe.”
This is definitely an eye opening must read, which is longlisting for the 2019 Booker Prize.
My rating: 9/10