~~some spoilers ahead, I guess~~
10 minutes and 38 seconds is the longest amount of time (according to Elif Shafak’s novel) that human brain activity has been recorded post-mortem. (I’m not sure this is true, but as Shafak makes no attempt to convince us of medical legitimacy, I’m also not sure that it’s the point.) In this novel, the dead or dying brain belongs to Tequila Leila, a sex worker in Istanbul. Her ten minutes are spent remembering her life up to this point, in a series of vignette flashbacks that each start with a smell: the scent of the lemon-and-sugar wax that her mother and auntie slathered on their legs, the aroma of the cardamom coffee she used to drink with the man who became her husband. Shafak’s descriptive powers are at their height in these flashback passages, which are the strongest parts of the novel. She is a serious political novelist, but also a dryly humorous one; particularly enjoyable is the sequence in which the madam of Leila’s brothel makes all the girls clean it in anticipation of the arrival of the American Sixth Fleet, only to be stymied by a left-wing student demonstration that means the Americans never get off their ship. Bitter Ma’s rage at the lost business potential is very real and fundamentally not funny–we already know that she privileges a profit above the safety of her workers, as when she leaves Leila alone with a john who has a history of violence and who ends up throwing acid at her–but Shafak simultaneously nails the glorious, futile absurdity that seems to characterize street life in Istanbul. This section also introduces Leila’s five friends: Hollywood Humeyra, Sabotage Sinan, Nalan (who used to be Osman), Jameelah, and Zaynab122 (the number refers to her height; she has a form of dwarfism). These are the people–transsexuals, sex workers, the disabled and the lonely–who form her chosen family when her blood family fails her, and they will be the people who come to take her body from the morgue.
They don’t receive it, though. The first part of the book is entitled The Mind; the second, The Body. Shafak splits her narrative strategy into two: The Mind is limited to Leila’s perspective, but The Body–which mostly concerns the five friends’ attempts to give Leila’s corpse a proper burial–is narrated by an omniscient external voice that observes the living characters without committing to any one point of view. As the five are not her immediate family, the hospital refuses to release Leila’s body to them, and she is buried in the Cemetery of the Companionless, a kind of potter’s field outside of Istanbul where the nameless dead are denied even gravestones: the individual plots are marked with wooden boards upon which numbers are haphazardly scrawled. Nalan, the group’s de facto leader, suggests a solution: they will rob the grave, remove their friend’s body, and bury her at sea, as she wished. This section (and the very brief third, The Spirit, that follows) is much less successful. Mostly, I think, this is because Shafak’s handle on her tone starts to loosen. In part one, there is a delicate balance between horror and hilarity; in part two, the madcap grave robbery quickly becomes slapstick, and many of the jokes seem to turn on the inherently amusing nature of Nalan’s physical presentation as a trans woman. It’s as though the novel can’t decide what sort of book it is: an evocative meditation on violence against women in twentieth-century Turkey, or a buddy romp.
On the whole, I think, the first section is strong enough to carry the rest. But once the life leaves Leila, it leaves the book, too.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds In This Strange World was published by Viking on 6 June.
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