Title: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
Author: Elif Shafak
Reviewed by: Asma Effendi
The preamble of the book opens with the grieving words of Einstein, who as a physicist reveals connection between past, present and the future hinting that life after death is certain. Following, Shafak introduces a dead, yet an alive character, known as Tequila Leila among her friends and clients. Shafak pens down an idiomatic tale by starting off from the climax, as Leila’s dead body is found in a suburb of Istanbul beside a wheel bin. Her heartbeat has ceased; she is no longer breathing, but her mind is fully awake to the memories of the night before, as precise as the scent of the perfume she was wearing. By diving into Leila’s mind, the readers would surely be convinced that there is life inside death and death inside life. ‘People always assumed that a corpse was no more alive than a fallen tree or a hollow stump, devoid of consciousness. But given half a chance, Leila would have testified that, on the contrary, a corpse was brimming with life’. For 10 minutes and 38 seconds each neuron of her brain is blazing with memories from her childhood till her death. For that purpose, the book is divided into three slabs: the mind, the body and the soul. The mind is the most convincing part of the story. Leila will take you to the rural Turkey, her birth in a family that long awaited a child. Leila’s memory is vivid and detailed as she remembers her house in Van, the taste of goat stew cooked on her brother’s birth and the deer impressions on the carpet. Her mind progressively wanders into a shadowy episode that flips her world upside down. She suffers sexual abuse, witnesses the death of her brother; later escapes from Van, but ends up in a brothel where life just gets worse.
The story progressively introduces five characters (who are also shown as outcasts) that will make you believe in friendship again. They show up during different incidents in Leila’s life and end up becoming her family. All these “undesirables” along with Leila’s love become her refuge in an unsafe place. They are very upset when Leila’s body is buried in the cemetery of companionless without a proper funeral. Shafak, through this novel, bring our attention to the sufferings of outcasts and the brutality of an unjust society.
Shafak is a motivation to writers because she crafts her stories around meaningful themes. She valiantly writes about topics that are taboos, otherwise left untouched, and treats them with dignity. What I truly admire about this piece of literature is the exotic description of Istanbul and the detailing, something missing in modern literature. Shortlisted for 2019 Booker, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is a treat for book lovers.