Short listed for the Booker Prize 2019
By Caroline Fakhri
I loved 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World, written by Elif Shafak. I’m not sure if the title would have drawn me to read it but hearing Shafak speak about the story so eloquently, at Asia House, London, got me hooked and contrary to my usual practice of only reading physical books, I bought a digital version immediately.
In the story which is set between 1947 and 1990, Shafak brings the main characters to life and I ended up admiring them all, especially Leila, for their strength in the face of so much prejudice in a conservative Turkey where misfits and social outcasts were and are left on the fringes of society.
The ‘strange’ title relates to the science of the brain still continuing to live on in a dead body for ten minutes and 38 seconds, in Leila’s case, after a person has died and it is through this period of time that Leila relates her memories, to us the reader, evoked by sounds and smells from her life.
The book is in three parts and it is in Part One that we learn about Leila, her early life in the East of Turkey and her childhood memories, which deal with some difficult subjects such as child molestation/ incest, polygamy and suppression of women. Shafak does not shy away from these and paints a realistic picture of the taboos and cultural difficulties of a very conservative Turkey. Also in Part One we learn why Leila leaves her home city and goes to Istanbul and the events that led her to become a prostitute.
We also learn about Leila’s five close friends who stand by her, and each other, through thick and thin and without giving too much away, regarding how the story ends, her rescue from eternal loneliness in the Cemetery of the Companionless. I felt sad when the story through Leila’s eyes ended as I didn’t enjoy the second and third parts as much. In comparison to Part One, the story, as seen through the eyes of the friends, did not hold my attention as I felt the characters lacked the same intensity that they had when seen through Leila’s eyes.
Shafak brings to life the atmosphere as well as the visual sights and sounds which evoke Turkey. She brings the vibrant city of Istanbul into the reader’s imagination by way of the descriptions of the smells and taste of the food, the chaotic city streets with their never ending traffic, the heat of the summer months, the damp cold of the winter time and the jostling crowds. Shafak also portrays the suffocating atmosphere of a provincial city from fifty or so years ago where deep cultural beliefs are never far from the surface, women are cloistered and secrets are kept carefully locked away.