“I honestly don’t know how to express my shock and surprise, my joy. I am deeply, deeply honoured…” tweeted Turkish novelist Elif Shafak upon hearing the news that her latest novel “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” has been nominated for the Booker Prize.
Primarily set in Istanbul, the story follows main character, Tequila Leila, a sex worker, in the 10 Minutes and 38 seconds that her mind continues to work following her death.
As the minutes pass, memories relating to key moments in Tequila Leila’s life are brought to the surface and, along the way, the reader is also introduced to the five friends she made at various points throughout her life; friends who became family and who, in the hours following her death, are determined to find her and bring her home.
I have only visited Istanbul once but I can clearly recall its breathtakingly dramatic scenery, created by both its geographical position and architecture that is so reflective of its rich and turbulent history. As a city it also felt somewhat intangible, evoking a sense of magic and mystery and it’s easy to see how and why it has provided the setting for some of the most inspired and transformative works of fiction. Whilst I’m not sure I’d call this book transformative, it is definitely inspired and it was well worth reading.
The book is separated into two parts and for me, the first part, which primarily focuses on the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after Tequila Leila’s death, was the strongest and most thought-provoking. It also includes individual chapters dedicated to the stories of each of the five friends which made for interesting reading and provided valuable insight into their lives but, when combined with the fact that the book was already divided into two parts, occasionally felt a little disjointed. Their stories are, however, integral to the plot and contribute heavily to the book’s overall impact so that is a very mild criticism.
It is easy to see why books such as this one make for uncomfortable reading but fiction has a powerful way of bringing the truth to the surface. Of course, this doesn’t always go down well, especially where there are people who’d rather bury uncomfortable truths and allow evil to lurk in the shadows undisturbed. With this novel, Elif Shafak once again draws attention to the very people whose stories can so easily go unheard.
Whilst Leila and her friends reflect the society we live in, they also draw the reader’s attention to the barriers that exist within it, in particular, highlighting the treatment of women’s bodies within patriarchal societies where, so often, they are simultaneously admired, lusted after, objectified and abused.
Shafak depicts the violence, both in life and death, that so many are confronted with; real life events subtly and skilfully interwoven so that the reader is reminded of the truth that exists within this work of fiction.
This book proved to be a surprisingly quick read but after spending a couple of days submerged in this dark world, finishing it was like finally coming up for air. With that said, whilst it wasn’t the easiest read, its lasting impression was actually a very positive one. What stood out above all else, was its depiction of the love that can exist between friends. These are the love stories that don’t always get the attention they deserve and, despite the various hardships they experienced, Leila and her friends were a reminder of what a gift it is to truly love and be loved.