Turkish delight: Elif Shafak proves herself a doyenne of storytelling with new book

'10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World' is a cleverly crafted and immensely powerful tale that features an unusual and unforgettable female lead

Elif Shafak has published 16 books in both Turkish and English, and has garnered a list of accolades even longer, such as the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, which she was awarded in 2010. ​​Paul Musso
Elif Shafak has published 16 books in both Turkish and English, and has garnered a list of accolades even longer, such as the Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, which she was awarded in 2010. ​​Paul Musso

Istanbul means different things to different characters in Elif Shafak’s novels. In 2013’s The Architect’s Apprentice, the protagonist regards the city as “a wen of opposites”, a place that “gave generously and, with the same breath, recalled her gift”. In her latest book, it is “a liquid city” where nothing is permanent. It is a “schizophrenic city” where “the old and the new, the factual and the fictitious, the real and the surreal amalgamated”. It is “a city of wilful amnesia”, “a city of scars”, “a city where all the discontented and all the dreamers ended up”.

In her dedication – “to the women of Istanbul” – Shafak describes it as “a she-city”. As with her 2016 novel, Three Daughters of Eve, women take centre stage in her latest book, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World, which was published last month. However, the Istanbul these characters call home is more of a man’s world. One woman in particular flounders in it, ending up victimised and brutalised. Shafak traces her plight in a thoroughly original way, and the result is a cleverly crafted and immensely powerful tale, featuring an unforgettable heroine.

She is Leila, and when 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World opens, she is dead, with her body in a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. Shafak wastes little time in revealing the ingenious conceit within the book’s unwieldy title. Rather than have Leila’s life flash before her eyes prior to her death, Shafak allows the character to reflect on all her experiences in the moments after her demise.

’10 Minutes and 28 Seconds in this Strange World’ by Elif Shafak
’10 Minutes and 28 Seconds in this Strange World’ by Elif Shafak

That character was born Leyla in the city of Van, a child of the young, illiterate and superstitious Binnaz, and the overbearing and increasingly devout Haroun. Immediately after Leyla is born, Haroun decides that his other wife, the older, childless Suzan, should bring up the baby. Relegated to “Auntie”, Binnaz watches helplessly as Leyla is nurtured by another woman. As she grows up, Leyla is rendered equally incapable, first by her father, who insists she stay at home “packaged and preserved”, and later at the hands of an abusive uncle.

But as plans are being made for a sickening marriage of convenience to tame what is perceived to be Leyla’s wayward temperament, she runs away from her family home and heads for Istanbul. But once there, the kindness of strangers proves deceptive, and she is tricked and sold to a brothel. So begins a new phase of her life, one that brings a change of scene, fresh ordeals and a modified name, Leila, as well as the same old predicament of men calling the shots and determining her fate.

Over the years, five special friends provide a valuable safety net for the woman. All are like-minded cast-offs and outsiders who have sought refuge and kindred spirits in Istanbul. There is Sabotage Sinan, whose tough name belies a feeble nature; Hollywood Humeyra, a singer who fled a violent husband; Zaynab122, a dwarf from Lebanon who works as a part-time fortune teller; Jameelah, who was trafficked from Somalia and exploited; and Nostalgia Nolan, who has endured a character-defining crisis of identity.

Support also comes from a loyal and loving partner. Artist and revolutionary D/Ali rescues Leila from servitude and romance blossoms between them. But then tragedy strikes and Leila is forced to lean more heavily on her five saviours. Those friends aren’t there to catch her when she finally falls, but they rally round to pick up the pieces and give her a fitting send-off.

The second half of the novel moves the spotlight from Leila to her friends. They don’t hunt her killer, but instead search for her body, which has been buried among other “undesirables” in the Cemetery of the Companionless – “the loneliest graveyard in Istanbul”. Shafak alternates between farce and profound tenderness and largely succeeds.

Cityscape in sunset.
Istanbul becomes a character of many traits in Shafak’s book, which is set in the city. Getty Images

But the novel is at its strongest when Leila is on the page. The first half showcases Shafak’s talent as a storyteller, and her ability to make the reader empathise fully with her main character. Each of her early chapters revolve around one of Leila’s memories, and each memory is triggered by a scent or taste. The combined smell of lemon and sugar is redolent of the house in Van, cardamom coffee returns her to Istanbul’s street of brothels and single malt takes her back to the day of her death. It is a clever trope, at once creative and evocative.

As Leila makes her way in Istanbul, veering ever further off the tourist track, the city emerges as a character – or rather characters. “There were multiple Istanbuls struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive,” Shafak writes.

But there is only one Leila and she doesn’t survive the story. Not that it matters. Leila’s heart may have stopped beating, but Shafak ensures she is brilliantly alive.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak is published by Viking

Updated: October 23, 2019 03:20 PM

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