Death In Istanbul:
It is commonly believed, that just before a person dies, their life flashes before their eyes. Elif Shafak’s Booker shortlisted book, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World, takes off from this premise.
The bestselling Turkish author’s, protagonist is Tequila Leila, an Istanbul prostitute, who is lying dead in a dumpster, murdered by a nasty customer. In the 10 minutes and 28 seconds that it takes from her brain to shut down after her heart stops, she recalls her past and the stories of five loyal friends she made in her life—Sinan, Nalan, Zaynab, Jameelah and Humeyra.
Leila grows up in an unhappy household in rural Turkey, snatched from her mother to be given to her father’s second wife, who is unable to conceive. This, and the birth of a Mongoloid son who dies early, batters the mind of her mother. The burden of patriarchy is heavy on the women, there is no space to negotiate even for a sliver of freedom; Leila’s father destroys a hula hoop that her childhood friend Sinan gifts her.
When Leila runs away to the city to avoid marriage to the son of an uncle who had abused and raped her when she was a child, she suffers the inevitable fate of the rebel—she is sold to a brothel by a man who offers to help her. No matter what her circumstances, Leila is kind to others, more so to the human flotsam and jetsam that society discards—a transsexual singer Nostalgia Nalan, being the most prominent, the one who drives the second part of the novel.
Shafak, who is in trouble in her native Turkey for writing about sexual violence, is gifted enough to turn what could have been a schmaltzy story into a brutal yet tender narrative about the lives of women in a society that devalues them. In that ugly area of exploitation and cruelty that Leila finds herself—a client throws acid on her—she also wins friendship and true love from Ali, a political activist and artist, who marries her and briefly rescues her from the degradation of the flesh trade.
It is Leila courage that prevents her from seeing herself as a victim or being ashamed of what she does for a living. The second part of the novel is a crazy adventure by her friends, who are aghast that apathetic authorities have dumped her body in the “Cemetery of the Companionless” after her family refuses to claim her remains. They dig up her corpse from the grave to give her a burial she deserves.
This novel may not be as good as her earlier books like The Forty Rules Of Love or Three Daughters Of Eve (its place in the Booker shortlist is baffling), but there is a lot in it to recommend– compassion for the marginalised, the sights and streets of Istanbul, plus a capsule history of modern day Turkey. A heroine like Tequila Leila does not come up too often in fiction, nor do characters like Sinan and Nalan.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World
By Elif Shafak