10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (Penguin Books: 2020, 9780241979464)

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World begins with the end – of Tequila Leila’s life. Her death sparks a string of memories that take us from her birth to her death; from a childhood of oppression and abuse in a province of Turkey, to her escape to Istanbul where, despite being sold into the sex trade, she finds companionship and a modicum of freedom. Each of the five friends she finds along the way – Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122, Hollywood Humeyra – provides a lifeline and an outsider insider’s view to the reader into their clandestine city-living.

What drew me to move this book to the top of my TBR pile was the setting. With lockdown fatigue and the knowledge that it will be a while until safe travelling is possible again, I reached for it hoping to be transported to the book’s version of Istanbul, just as I reached for Call Me by Your Name back in May hoping to escape into the Italian Riviera. To my surprise, some of the most evocative moments in the novel actually come early on in the childhood passages. Though Leila’s family life is lonely and full of trauma, the physical home and the mechanics of that home – the cooking, the celebrations, the neighbourhood women’s waxing days – are full of colour, scents, flavours and sounds; the local culture is full of folklore and superstition that, seen through her child eyes, reminded me of stories that I heard and read growing up.

I was expecting to find the same intensity in the Istanbul passages, and while there were a fair amount of metaphors depicting the manic nature of the city, I kept hoping to see Leila leave her room at the brothel where she lived and worked for many years and take us through a typical day or night in the city. But really it’s only fair and perhaps logical for Shafak to deprive the reader of experiencing a sense of freedom through Leila when she had so little of it.

We do witness some significant moments in the history of Istanbul, and get a sense of the rushed and chaotic energy that it seems to share with many other big cities. Leila is told early on that the city “will crush you,” but in a city where a newspaper uses Leila’s death to remind its residents that “normal female citizens have no need to worry about their safety,” what really crushes the disenfranchised in this story is not the city, but tradition. In Istanbul they are trapped between worlds but they can be who they are, hard as it may be. In many ways, that is what cities all over the world do for those who have, or want to, flee from smaller, more traditional towns – provide a refuge. It can be a ruthless, dangerous one; but still a refuge.

Image by Wilmar Santos

Elif Shafak is a true storyteller, who can artfully transit through different genres within the same novel and still have it sit comfortably on the literary fiction shelf. I usually go for a more minimalist style in contemporary novels where not much happens, so this novel was an unexpected treat for me. There may be one or two metaphors too many for the less-is-more-crowd, but the story calls for this – it softens the blows a little. Having Tequila Leila’s memories be sparked by the senses, in particular taste and smell, is also a smart move as the sensory experience of remembering is easily relatable and evocative.

In a 2019 interview Elif Shafak said she considers this a life-affirming novel, and seeing Leila and her five friends dare to be who they are in the face of so much persecution and indifference, I have to agree. This is a novel about friendship, resilience and what it means to flee from family and perceived safety when these are forces so toxic that they threaten to destroy your very essence. This is a novel about courage and the will to not just survive, but to fight to build a life.

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