The Blurred Line Between Life and Death

In 2016, the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences published a very fascinating and insightful research paper. Through post-mortem observations, they have noted instances of brain wave activities. For 10 minutes, 38 seconds after being declared clinically dead, one’s brain still continues to function, the consciousness swirling slowly as it descends to the cavernous halls of underworld.

Drawing inspiration from this interesting observation, Turkish-British author Elif Shafak built her latest novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World around this premise. The 2019 Man Booker Prize shortlisted work relates the story of Tequila Leila, a prostitute working the Red Light district of Istanbul. On the way home after one engagement, she was brutally murdered by a pair of serial killers who prey on sex workers.

In 10 minutes and 38 seconds after she was killed, her memory flashes back to her past. Her memory waves the proverbial wand and what is conjured is the story of a woman unalterably transformed by  her past and by her experiences. With indomitable courage, she moved rose above her miseries to become a better version of herself.

“If there was a God up there, He must be laughing His head off at a human race capable of making atomic bombs and building artificial intelligence, but still uncomfortable with their own mortality and unable to sort out what to do with their dead. How pathetic it was to try to relegate death to the periphery of life when death was at the centre of everything.” ~ Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World is a story that transcended death. Through Tequila Leila’s vibrant and colorful memories, it plunges into the subterranean passages of the memory, as one drifts between the world of consciousness and oblivion. Tequila Leila’s extinguishing memory transports the readers to her origins in the countryside, where her childhood was scarred by the piousness of her patriarchal family. With each reminiscence, the senses of taste or smell was aroused but it went beyond that as the story seduced the greater consciousness.

Within the confines of the novel are various subjects and themes that remain prevalent in present-day Turkey and Istanbul. Amongst these subjects are prostitution, homophobia and homosexuality, the imbalance of justice, the patriarchal structure of the society, paedophilia, among others. These diverse topics-of-discussions, which remain relevant today, gave the novel a more universal atmosphere.

Tequila Leila’s story is also the towering story of friendship and loyalty. When Leila’s story moved from the countryside to Istanbul, she met several individuals who would form her secondary family in her new life. This tight knit motley crew of loyal friends helped change her, and in return, she helped change their lives. Beyond the cold realities of the backstreets of Istanbul are heartwarming encounters. Behind warm smiles are stories of traumas and dark pasts.

Through her 11th novel work, Shafak examined feminine roles in a social system highly defined by patriarchal codes. Amidst the flurry of Leila’s memories emerges vignettes of the story of her mentally unstable mother. Deprived of the joys of bringing up Leila, she was reduced to a mere aunt when her husband pronounced that the first wife will be the child’s mother. In the mother and daughter story, Shafak captured the blunt impact of societies dominated by male ideals to the physical and mental health of women.

“Her mother had once told her that childhood was a big, blue wave that lifted you up, carried you forth and, just when you thought it would last forever, vanished from sight. You could neither run after it nor bring it back. But the wave, before it disappeared, left a gift behind – a conch shell on the shore. Inside the seashell were stored all the sounds of childhood.” ~ Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

Ultimately, Tequila Leila’s story is a towering narrative about humanity, about our tenacity in overcoming challenges and adversities, of differences and inequities. Tequila Leila possessed a silent strength which made her survive every stone that was hurled to her by a world hellbent on crushing her spirits. She used this indomitable spirit to positively influence her friends. It is a story of regrets, of chances not taken. On the contrary, it is the story of bravery and taking control of one’s destiny.

Covering a lot of ground, Shafak explored a plethora of themes and subjects. Equally impressive is the mantle upon which these rich details were drawn in. On the background, Shafak painted a stellar picture of Istanbul beyond the famed minarets of Hagia Sophia. She walked her readers to its tawdry corners, to its dimly lit streets, to corners ordinary visitors would remain largely ignorant of. It is a manic old city. It is a city that belonged to the dead. It is a liquid city.

The intricate details of social life in the eastern province of Van’ Tequila Leila’s birthplace were vividly captured in the narrative. The finely textured historical contexts further enriched the narrative’s landscape, enhancing its backdrop.  10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World is a tale that traverses the skylines and navigates the subterranean works of Istanbul. It is also the story of the emergence of modern Turkey.

Shafak’s prose was upbeat. The novel’s rich tapestry ws carefully painted by Shafak’s deft and masterful hands. At times it turns overly sentimental, each stroke was carefully thought of. She was relentless in pushing the story forward whilst maintaining one steady line. Relating Leila’s story through her extinguishing memory is an ingenious device. The quirky ending where the five friends retrieve Leila’s corpse from the “cemetery of companionless” is a masterstroke of a storyteller.

“Well, think about it: a friend is someone you can walk with in the dark and learn lots of things from. But you also know you are different people – you and your friend. You are not your depression. You are much more than what your mood is today or tomorrow.” ~ Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World is a lofty tale that overs a plethora of seminal subjects – the tenacity of the mind, the relevance of friendships, the poignancy of memories, and the imprints of patriarchal societies. Shafak was at her brilliant best, brandishing the narrative with her rich and powerful strokes. It was not a flawless execution; at times flowery becomes too flowery and sentimental becomes too sentimental. Nonetheless, it was a fascinating work, well-painted by deft hands, and well-crafted by a highly imaginative mind.

Ratings:

79%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 23%
Writing (25%) – 20%
Overall Impact (15%) – 11%

Interestingly, I read 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World even though I bought a copy of The Bastard of Istanbul first. This is my first Shafak novel. She has an elegant prose which was well translated into the narrative. The first half titled “The Mind” was the novel’s best part. The device upon which Tequila Leila’s story was delivered was interesting. The story did start to fall apart in the second half, titled “The Body”, as Shafak became unsure of how to complete the narrative. The under-exploration of the relationship between Leila and her real mother also weighed down on me.

Nevertheless, it made me really look forward to her controversial work, The Bastard of Istanbul. From what I’ve read of her, Shafak, despite being the bestselling female writer in Turkey, has always been at odds with her country’s government.

Book Specs

Author: Elif Shafak
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 308
Genre: Literary Fiction

Synopsis

In the pulsating moments after she has been murdered and left in a dumpster outside Istanbul, Tequila Leila enters a state of heightened awareness. Her heart has stopped beating but her brain is still active – for 10 minutes 38 seconds. While the Turkish sun rises and her friends sleep soundly nearby, she remembers her life – and the lives of others, outcasts like her.

Tequila Leila’s memories bring us back to her childhood in the provinces, a highly oppressive milieu with religion and traditions, shaped by a polygamous family with tow mothers and an increasingly authoritarian father. Escaping to Istanbul, Leila makes her way into the sordid industry of sex trafficking, finding a home in the city’s historic Street of Brothels. This is a dark, violent world, but Leila is tough and open to beauty, light, and the essential bonds of friendship.

In Tequila Leila’s death, the secrets and wonders of modern Istanbul come to life, painted vividly by the captivating tales of how Leila came to know and be loved by her friends. As her epic journey to the afterlife comes to an end, it is her chosen family who brings her to story to a buoyant and breathtaking conclusion.

About the Author

Elif Shafak was born on October 25, 1971 in Strasbourg, France, to philosopher Nuri Bilgin and Şafak Atayman, who would later become a diplomat. After her parents separated, Shafak moved to Ankara, Turkey where she was raised by her mother and grandmother. At the age of eighteen, while choosing an appropriate pen name, she added her mother’s first name.

Shafak has an extensive educational background. She earned a degree in International Relations, a master’s degree in Gender and Women’s Studies, and a Ph.D. in Political Science. Shafak holds an extensive teaching résumé. She has taught in various Turkish universities and was a fellow at Mount Holyoke College, and a visiting professor at the University of Michigan. She also held a tenured teaching position at the University of Arizona. She is an honorary fellow at St. Anne’s College, Oxford where she also held the Weidenfeld Visiting Professorship in Comparative European Literature for the 2017-2018 academic year.

Shafak’s first published work was Kem Gözlere Anadolu (1994), a short story collection. Three years later, Pinhan (The Hidden), her first novel was published. It won the 1998 Great Rumi Award. Published in 2004,  The Saint of Incipient Insanities was Shafak’s first novel written in English. The Bastard of Istanbul (2007) is, to date, Shafak’s most controversial work. She was even prosecuted on charges of “insulting Turkishness” for this work. She has also published a score of nonfiction works. Her latest work, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World was published in 2019 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Shafak has lived in Istanbul, Boston, Michigan, and Arizona. Since 2013, she has lived in London. She is married to Turkish journalist Eyüp Can Sağlık, a former editor of the newspaper Radikal. The couple has two children. In 2017, Shafak came out as a bisexual.