Books: ’10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World’

She recalled things she did not even know she was capable of remembering, things she had believed to be lost for ever. Time became fluid, a free flow of recollections seeping into one another, the past and the present inseparable.

Thus begins an extraordinary tale of a brutalised, broken but courageous woman who retains her humanity despite a world bent on crushing her at every turn. It is 1990 and the protagonist of Elif Shafak’s 11th novel, Tequila Leila, is dead when it begins. She has been dumped in a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. Her breathing has stopped, yet somehow, her mind remains active. Later a medical examiner muses on the fascinating research he has encountered, apparently showing that brain activity can continue for up to 10 minutes and 38 seconds after death, which is how the book got its title.

In this state, Leila’s mind begins to recall some of the most important moments of her existence, memories so vivid you can imagine how they must look, smell and taste. Weaving a rich narrative, the novel follows her from eastern Turkey all the way to Istanbul and is peppered with real events that have shaped modern Turkey.

Chapter by chapter, we learn of the harrowing events that have ravaged Leila but also sweet moments tinged with hope as though “Istanbul was an illusion, a magician’s trick gone wrong.” We learn the personal histories of Leila’s five closest friends, a set of “undesirables” whose characters are infused with beauty and pain, as Leila’s personality is with heart and soul. By revealing layer upon layer of her interior life, Shafak draws a magnificently nuanced portrait of the profoundly courageous girl who refuses to be silent even when murdered becomes the conscience of “this manic old city”. “She wished she could go back and tell everyone that the dead did not die instantly, that they could, in fact, continue to reflect on things, including their own demise.”

Here, as in Shafak’s previous work, we find good old-fashioned storytelling, beautiful writing and vivid descriptions of place and time. It is relentless in its portrayal of violence, heartbreak and grief, but ultimately it is life-affirming. In the final section, Leila’s corpse is whisked away from the “cemetery of the companionless” by her friends, a poignant testament to Shafak’s gift as a writer. This is a book for the ages.

Meet the Author

Award-winning British-Turkish novelist Elif Shafak has been chosen by Politico as one of 12 people who can make the world better. The following interview includes discussion about issues of identity, language and her recent book, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, Viking, June 2019.

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