Although I very much enjoyed Elif Shafak’s previous novel “Three Daughters of Eve”, I was initially hesitant to read her new novel because the subject sounded so depressing. “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” recounts the final thoughts of its central character Leila after she’s been murdered and left in a dumpster. Scientists speculate that the brain remains active for a number of minutes after a person’s heart stops so the first part of the novel captures her final memories and reflections. As the clock ticks down to the inevitable expiration of her consciousness we follow her journey from being born to a religiously conservative man with two wives in the provinces of Turkey to her life as a prostitute in Istanbul where she becomes known as Tequila Leila. Along the way she meets five vital friends. These people form a network of mutual support to each other amidst strenuous circumstances and social rejection. We’re also given brief glimpses into these five people’s experiences of alienation.
While I admire the nobility of a novelist who sympathetically gives voice to the many voiceless represented in this novel it presents a lot of difficult subject matter including child abuse, religious extremism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, the plight of immigrants, poverty and sexual slavery. I also felt uncertain at first because in the first section of the book it feels like each friend of Leila’s self-consciously represents a different downtrodden community. In her attempt to make visible a full spectrum of alienated people Shafak risks turning her characters into tokens rather than fully realised individuals. But ultimately I found this novel came together and worked very effectively for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, Leila’s personality and resiliency shine through her tumultuous journey. It’s a pleasure seeing her vibrant character come out in scenes where she radiates an energy and creative persistence amidst very challenging situations. This gives the story an engaging momentum. Secondly, the later part of the book is concerned with her friends coming together to memorialize Leila when the state refuses to do so after burying her in a “cemetery of the companionless” amidst many other marginalized unmourned people. The idiosyncratic personalities of these five character emerge in their interactions with each other as they form a wild plan to pay tribute to their beloved friend. I felt these aspects of the novel made it a riveting and convincing read rather than just a worthy exercise in raising social awareness for the disenfranchised citizens of Turkey.
It’s not surprising that Shafak is preoccupied with issues to do with social stigma in modern-day Turkey. As an activist and artist she’s been put on trial by the Turkish government for ‘insulting Turkishness’ in her writing and Shafak wrote a moving article here describing the political struggles she’s encountered. I admire that she’s not only chosen to engage with such difficult issues being faced by people who are being persecuted and silenced, but she’s skilfully crafted a story which draws you right into the heart of their plight and makes them come alive in a way I found powerful and moving.