10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
Published by Viking
Publication date: June 6, 2019
Genres: Book Clubs, Fiction, Cultural, Literary
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A Turkish woman lying murdered in a rubbish bin hardly seems like the appropriate subject for a piercingly tender novel about the damage done to innocence in childhood and the bonds of friendship as family, but 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is a singular work that defies labels. The same is true of the dead woman, Leila, who, at 40 years old, has been a prostitute in Istanbul since she was trafficked when she was 17. Through author Elif Shafak’s delicate, but precise, prose we learn of a woman who was so much more than any of the labels that were thrown at her.
But human memory resembles a late-night reveller who has had a few too many drinks: hard as it tries, it just cannot follow a straight line. It staggers through a maze of inversions, often moving in dizzying zigzags, immune to reason and liable to collapse altogether.
The title 10 Minutes 38 Seconds refers to the amount of time it takes for the brain to fully shut down after you die. There’s been new scientific research that shows brain activity continues for at least 10 minutes after physical death has occurred. Using this premise, Shafak divides the novel into three parts: The Mind, The Body, and The Soul. In the first part The Mind, the chapters go forward in time for the 10 minutes after Leila’s death, but are all memories of her past. The first chapter is 1 minute after death but moments after her birth. As the minutes go by we learn how Leila came to be where she is. We meet her family, which is not her birth family who disowned her, but the 5 people who have become her dearest friends.
This is such an amazing construct, moving the novel both forwards and backwards at the same time. It’s also a heartbreaking look at a woman who was betrayed and abandoned time and again and yet, still managed to find joy and happiness even if they were far too brief a part of her life.
In the same way we’re learning Leila, we’re also introduced to the lives of her five friends as random encounters that initially brought them together now play out in her mind. Each has been discarded by society for either physical issues or ‘deviant’ behavior and all have suffered abuse and marginalization. As the tethers to society and family are loosened, the ties between the five grow stronger.
They supported each other with the kind of loyalty that only those with few to rely on could muster.
When 10 Minutes shifts into The Body they come into play, trying to give Leila the burial she deserves. I had a bit of trouble with this section as it it’s written in conflicting tones. There is the desolation that comes from the truths of Leila’s death. Her friends are not related to her so, despite being the only people who care about her and want to honor her in death, they’re denied access. Instead, Leila’s body is disposed of in a place known as The Cemetery of the Companionless, a real place in Istanbul. Just the name saddens me. A pall hangs over their efforts until the journey to the cemetery when the tone shifts into an almost antic, campy atmosphere. I was invested enough in Leila that it felt out of place.
This brief hitch, although unwelcome, isn’t enough to detract from the overall painful beauty of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World. This is exquisite literary fiction at its best, a full immersion into one life and how that life ripples out to touch others.
I was inspired to read this novel after reading Shafak’s newset book, The Island of Missing Trees. A stunning novel of life in a divided country.
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