"10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World" by Elif Shafak

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Author Elif Shafak constructs a highly unorthodox frame for her narrative in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. She starts off with the death of her heroine Tequila Leila, and how she can still notice and remember things for several minutes as she lies dead, newly murdered, in a dumpster. We follow newly-dead Leila along as she recalls things from her life; it revolved around a motley group of her devoted friends and would-be lovers. Through this device Shafak hones in brilliantly on the injustice, prejudice, greed, and inhumanity with which middle class and devout society deals with its outcasts. Powerful, creative, and compassionate, this book was short-listed for the 2019 Booker. No surprise there.

Tequila Leila was born Leyla, the daughter of a devout Muslim tailor in Van, in eastern Turkey. An uncle begins molesting her when she’s six years old, and this continues for a decade. In this cruel and unjust episode, Shafak shows the family using the very true-to-life strategy of blaming the poor girl so as to shield the uncle and the family from shame. She refuses the punishment of a face-saving marriage and runs away to Istanbul. Of course immediately on arriving in the big city, she’s sold into prostitution.

Four of her devoted friends are women, and none of them come from conventional backgrounds, either. There is the four foot-tall dogsbody at the brothel where Leila works; the over-the-hill cabaret singer whose voice and looks are gone; the frail, wasting-away Ethiopian whore; and the strapping six-foot-two trans woman who  provides a modernist, secular foil to all the backwater Islamic superstitions in which characters bathe and into which readers dip their toes.

With this squad, the author provides a cross section of oppressed women on the fringe of Turkish society. She instructs open-minded readers with the strongest and best tool in existence: clear, effective fiction. The interplay of these characters, and the one soon-to-be-ruined man who had been friends with Tequila Leila, after her death, forms the tragicomedy that makes up the last quarter of the book. There’s a wonderful suspense-filled sequence in which her friends rescue Leila from her (almost) unmarked grave and race across the Bosphorus Bridge ahead of the pursuing police just as the sun comes up from the Asia side.

Replete with topical social and political themes, full of vivid and well-rounded characters, deeply informed about human nature, both in individuals and in mobs, dosed with humor, and built on a highly diverting and unorthodox narrative apparatus, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is a rewarding, memorable read. I marvel at it and recommend it unreservedly. 

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