I’ve never read a novel quite like 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. Elif Shafak is a master storyteller.
The novel opens on the moments after the death of Tequila Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul. She’s just been murdered, and her body has been tossed in the trash. The moments – and chapters – that follow are Leila’s thoughts as she recounts her life. Because during the 10 minutes and 38 seconds that follow her death, she still has consciousness. Her memories take us back through her childhood in the countryside, her decision to leave her family and the associated struggles behind and move to Istanbul, how she came to sex work, and the family she cultivated and loved while in the city.
Leila’s life was never easy, but she never let it break her spirit or her heart. She is an incredible character who is selfless and ever-persistent. Through all her hardships and betrayals, she never stops believing in goodness and love. I fell in love with her on the page; it was easy to do so. In addition to Leila, the cast of characters that make up her found family are also incredibly real and well-developed. The group consists of others who have been similarly othered by society: a trans woman, refugees and runaways, a woman with dwarfism. The love that the group has for each other is palpable on the page.
This love is even more apparent in the second half of the novel. Once Leila’s memories fade, she is discovered by law enforcement and interred in a local cemetery for the nameless and the unwanted. Her family sets off to find her and give her the burial they know she deserves, reminiscing themselves about their times with her. Shifting from a philosophical character study to almost an adventure novel, Shafak pulls the reader along on an exciting journey that is truly a page-turner.
Shafak writes boldly and brilliantly about trauma and marginalization. Despite the heavy moments, none of the characters’ struggles are sensationalized or trivialized. It is easy to see why this novel was considered for the 2019 Booker Prize. There is such insight into the characters, the writing is lush and evocative, and Shafak opens the door for meaningful conversations regarding sexual violence, misogyny and transmisogyny, xenophobia, classism, and sex workers’ rights. It was truly refreshing to read a novel that takes on these big concepts and covers them respectfully, focusing on the humanity of each individual character, and always lands firmly on the side of love for those who have been marginalized.
An unconventional love letter to outcasts, 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World was one of the most unique, heartfelt, and powerful books I’ve ever read. I cannot recommend it enough. For fans of Oyinkan Braithwaite’s My Sister, the Serial Killer, Zaina Arafat’s You Exist Too Much, and Shobha Rao’s Girls Burn Brighter.