I have been aware of Elif Shafak’s work as a writer as an activist for a while, as one of my friends spoke a lot about her book ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’, stating that Shafak has an ability to make Istanbul one of the main characters in her books. I have not read that book, but after reading ’10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’ for my book club, it is on my list. Before my copy arrived, I have also listened to a wonderful podcast with Shafak, called ‘How I Found My Voice’ when I learned more about her activism and her fascinating life. I will leave a link for it if you are interested in listening to it, I would highly recommend it.
Shafak’s ’10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’ follows the story of Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul. At the start of the novel, Leila is already dead, and through series of flashbacks, we learn about her ubringing in a small, traditional town in Turkey, her home life, friendships and how she came to Instabul. In these flashbacks, we are also met with numerous other characters that shape Leila’s life in one way or another. The book is divided into three big parts named The Body, The Mind and the Soul, where the later two are focused on her friend’s grief of her death. First part of the novel is about seemingly small and insignificant moments of Leila’s life, that come together to form a bigger story, that of a girl named Leila. Each chapter in the first section is associated with a smell, that transports Leila’s mind and the readers to a part of her past where we learn about her happy and sad moments. I enjoyed the first part of the novel the most, as Leila is probably the most developed character of all of them and I enjoyed getting to know her more.
Where I think Shafak is at her best is setting the atmosphere. Her prose is almost lyrical, and she described the back alleys and non-tourist parts of Istanbul really well. I have never visited Istanbul, but people in my book club who have, all agreed that the depiction is accurate. Shafak’s writing affects all senses and really sets the scene. The temporal setting of the book spans couple of decades, yet I was always aware of passing of time through her meticulous and well-thought-out descriptions. While I was reading this book, I could almost smell Leila’s Instabul and feel the changing temperatures on my skin. Shafak is a masterful storyteller and after I finished reading this book, I immediately ordered a few more by her. It seems like she is one of the writers who truly understands different people, their motivation and reason for doing things. After reading about ‘The Cemetery of the Companion less’, I had to search it up and the images really stuck in my head. The idea that people can be so unceremoniously buried because they made choices that mainstream did not deem acceptable broke my heart. It also made me do a bit more research into cemeteries like these only to realize that there is a similar type of cemetery in London. It looks like most places have a history that they would rather forget and not bring up.
As I have already mentioned, the main character of this book is Leila. Her story made me really sad, as I have realized that she is one of the millions of naive girls that have fallen into traps of bad people. However, it does not seem to me that Leila’s story is that of a victim, as she managed to live a life that was far from perfect, but one in which she found people she cared for and that cared for her. Her memories, ideas and relationships with others are given a lot of space in the novel. Unfortunately, I cannot say that it was true for her group of friends. While each of them was given a short chapter of their own that described their backstory and how they came to be where they are. To be honest, I would love if Shafak could revisit each of these characters again and give them more room and space to grow. A lot of people in my book club mentioned that after Leila’s death, the friendship group started falling apart a bit and that they started being inpatient with each other. On my part, I believe that this was the only logical outcome as Leila served as a sort of glue for the friendship group. However, what I did not enjoy was that at times, I had to remind myself what the characterization of each person was and who they were. For me, after a while, they felt…well honestly a bit tropy. They were not completely one dimensional, and they all had specific quirks that made them more realistic, but I think that they had a lot more potential they what was used in this book.
The themes of the book are wide, ranging from death, religion, spiritualism, but also dived into issues of sexuality, gender and overall politics in Turkey. For a book that is about three hundred pages, that is a lot to cover and some topics were more successful that others. Given that the main character of the book is a sex worker that was trafficked into doing it, discussion about attitude of public toward sex work in Instabul was quite insightful. Honestly, it made me face my own attitudes towards sex workers, especially those walking the streets. One of Leila’s friends is a transgender woman and some attention was paid to the issues related to the gender confirmation surgeries and how expensive and painful they can be, again, I wish there was more of this discussion. What I felt was not entirely successful was the inclusion of communism and the ideas through the character of Dali. While he was overall a sympathetic character, simply using him as a mouthpiece for the ideas of proletariat, was a little bit lazy for me. While I understand and appreciate the depth and importance of these themes, including so many of them in this book felt cluttered at times. For some of them, I am not sure if they added anything new to the story or what were they there in the first place.
However, my biggest issue of the story was the ending. The whole narrative of a group of friends going to a scary cemetery to retrieve a body and give it a proper burial in the dead of night felt like t a set up for some slapstick comedy sketch. Honestly, that is how it read. Again, I understand the motivation of these people to give their dear friend a proper burial, claiming that she was not compactness because she had friends. But, the fact that they first dug out a wrong body and that one of them got drunk and scared made the scene that could have been way more powerful not very effective. Honestly, the choice to approach it in this way felt baffling. The very end, in which they finally rest Leila into the sea and the readers are shown that her soul has finally settled made me more forgiving of the cemetery episode.
Finally, despite some criticism that I have of ’10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World’, I really enjoyed it. I rated 4/5 because of those criticisms, but I truly and throughout enjoyed it. Leila is one of the most fascinating protagonists I have read in a long time and to be honest, her openness and honesty gave this book its soul. Shafak is truly a wonderful author who was able to give people that many would try to avoid their humanity, soul and heart back. I can honestly recommend this book to just about anyone.
Did you read this book? Did you read anything else by Shafak? Let me kn