In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila’s consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away…
A sex worker in Istanbul, Leila is the victim of a serial killer, dumped in a garbage container on the edge of the city. In the 10 minutes 38 seconds is takes for the body to shut down after death, memories of family and friends crowd her ebbing moments. From birth into a religious Muslim family in the remote Turkish provincial town of Van to the final client where a good deed costs her her life, Leila ‘tells’ her story as the smell of cardamom reminds her of the handsome student she met whilst working in the brothel that was her home.
Elif Shafak’s novel is a humane story about intolerance towards sex and sexual differences and its cruel consequences. Leila’s murder is one such consequence – but the destruction of lives and the associated traumas are equally apparent, whether straight, gay or intersex.
At its best, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is a moving and fascinating insight into different worlds – 1950s regional Turkey and the life of a young girl in a family of two wives, bought up by a mother who is in reality her childless aunt: Leila’s early years in the city having run away from home at sixteen and is preyed upon immediately on arrival at the bus station: the establishment of friendships both inside and outside the sex industry but always with people on the margins. Shafak gives voice to the silenced and invisible – in the desert of life, the fool travels alone and the wise by caravan. Each is given their own (short) back story – the transgender Nostalgia Nalan, a trafficked Jameelah from Sudan, the religious Zaynab122, fellow runaway and singer Humeyra (the oldest of the group) and Sabotage Sinan, the only male and schoolfriend who eventually followed Leila to Istanbul. It’s a compassionate telling written with honesty, integrity and raw emotion.
Sadly, the novel loses its impact in the rather foolish search for Leila by her friends – a slapstick dash to the graveyard of the unknowns in Kilyos on the outskirts of the city to claim the body of their dead friend. They owe her a real burial. It’s chaotic and gothic as the friends rush through the streets and burial grounds by night as a storm approaches the Black Sea coastline.
Shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, Elif Safak lost out to the joint winners Margaret Atwood (The Testaments) and Bernardine Evaristo (Girl, Woman, Other).