Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World Book Cover 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World [2019] – ★★★1/2

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” is a shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019 book by the Turkish-British author Elif Shafak (The Architect’s Apprentice [2013])). In this story, Tequila Leila is found dead in a trash bin on the outskirts of Istanbul, but her mind keeps working for another ten minutes and thirty-eight seconds, during which time we are introduced to Leila’s childhood, her meetings with the- dearest-to-her people, and, finally, to the events leading up to her death. As Leila’s mind starts to race through her life events, we get to know Istanbul and its dark history, as well as the plight of the most marginalised people living within the city walls. Shafak’s “mind-slipping-away” concept is intriguing, and she does try to make her book as evocative as possible. However, the second half of the book is nowhere near as interesting as the first half, and the prose is sometimes sentimentally-inclined and even pretentious. There is this feeling when reading this book that the “mind-slipping-away” element is a gimmick introduced by Shafak to get our attention so that we can finally read what she wants us to understand: that Istanbul has had many faces through history, and that there are, and have always been, marginalised people living there, especially women, who suffered much and now deserve attention, recognition and, above all, dignity – even after their death. 

The best part of the book is its first half and it is titled “The Mind”. This is where, even though Leila is clinically dead, her mind continues to function at a full speed, remembering certain key life events and trying to make sense of unresolved situations. The book’s synopsis says: “what if, after the moment of death, the human mind continues to work for a few more precious minutes?”. The fact is that the mind does continue working for a few minutes because death is not an event, but a process in a way – at least when it comes to the brain itself. That is why some who survived reported “flashes” and “tunnels” after they had been pronounced “dead”; at least that is how most explain this phenomenon. Leila may have ended up a prostitute dead in a trash bin, but she was born blessed with “honourable” names, even if a child in a dysfunctional family. Her mind in the story is working for the last time, and we read about her childhood and adolescence, while also being introduced to Turkish traditions, as well as, later on, to a harsh life on the streets in the darkest corners of Istanbul. Leila is very interesting as a character, but her story is presented with the “breaks” to introduce her best friends and Leila’s first meetings with them: Sabotage Sinan (a childhood friend), Jameelah (another prostitute), Hollywood Humeyra (a bar singer), Nostalgia Nalan (a trans-woman) and Zaynabi122 (a friend from Lebanon). They are all either societal outcasts or foreigners who are trying to fit it and survive in the city. Their stories are probably not as interesting to read as Leila’s story at this point, because we, as the readers, have already become so emotionally involved with Leila.

Other great things about the book are its evocative nature and “sudden” insights provided about the characters and places. There is this sentence in the book: “over time it became a game they played together, a currency of their own: they took memories and moments, and converted them into tastes and smells” [Shafak, 2019: 142]. The book itself also seems to play that game because smells and tastes are everywhere within its pages – from the taste of salt, “cardamom coffee – strong, intense and dark” [2019: 45] and “the aromas of street food” [2019: 73] to “a pungent smell” of the ground. In other respects, Shafak’s “deep” statements in the book appear contrived, either stating the obvious or coming dangerously close to being overly sentimental: “the possibility of an immediate and wholesale decimation of civilisation was not half as frightening as the simple realisation that our individual passing had no impact on the order of things, and life would go on just the same with or without us” [Elif Shafak: 2019: 5]. There is much repetition also, for example, about how frightening death is, though it should not be, because it is so common. Shafak also overuses her “flowery” language: “[his] memory would envelop her, soft and comforting like a blanket” [2019: 203].

The second half of the book is titled “The Body”, and this is where the five friends of Leila are trying to give her a proper burial. When we get to this part in the book, it becomes clear why we have been introduced to Leila’s five friends separately in the first half – it is so that it is interesting for us to follow each of them as they try to have Leila buried with respect. This part of the book does not work well, and there is the feeling that Shafak, after dealing with Leila’s mind, does not know where to proceed next. This part of the books mediates between comedy and thriller with evocative passages on Istanbul, but it still feels out of place.

10 Minutes and 38 Seconds” has an intriguing “neuro-scientific” concept, and Shafak should be praised for drawing attention to one kind of Istanbul, as well as to the plight of marginalised people there. However, at the end of the day, there is this question: does all this work as a story, and is there a story at all? Was it really necessary to set this story in the framework of a dead person and one mind’s final minutes? Shafak wants her book to be: (i) a tragic childhood story with secrets; (ii) a confused teenager story, similar to Persepolis; (iii) a heart-breaking love tale with some Pretty Woman themes; (iv) a moving story of friendship; (v) a story of outcasts who try not to give up (trans-sexuality and madness are all covered); (vi) a fast-paced thriller; (vii) a “mind-slipping-away” story; and, finally, (viii) a murder mystery with some humour and horror thrown in there for an effect. What, then, the book ends up to be? Something that can barely be remembered, apart from the strong main character and some images. Just like in her The Architect’s Apprentice, Shafak simply attempts too much.

Since the author also dedicates her book to Istanbul, she “forces” a chapter on Istanbul into her book – titled “This Maniac Old City”. But, this is not even a love-letter to Istanbul because Shafak’s Istanbul is so dark, filled with injustice and crime. This, as well as a “tidy”, “self-satisfying” ending, gives an even stronger impression that the author was writing “by the book”, trying to fit into her story every possible injustice, from childhood traumas and street protests gone wrong to extreme examples of Islamic conservatism and Turkish patriarchy. It is a good, admirable “essay” on a modern life in Turkey, but, unfortunately, only an average fiction story. 

18 thoughts on “Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

  1. I didn’t realise there was a second part after The Mind. I am still intrigued by this book, but it doesn’t sound like it flows as smoothly as I would have hoped. It also sounds like a mix of a lot of different things, but then again, isn’t this undefinability how we often perceive originality? You haven’t put me off this book, but perhaps lowered my expectations a bit. Which is fine. Thanks for an interesting review!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Well, I have an unpopular opinion and many people love this book, so don’t let me put you off! My rating of three and a half stars is still a good one (I was torn between four and three and a half stars actually). Honestly, I wish Shafak stopped after part I of this book, because the second part is simply not as interesting with Leila out of the picture. I will be very interested to read your opinion, too 🙂

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  2. This was the book on the Booker list that interested me the most, but still not enough to read it. I’m less interested after your review but grateful for the detailed analysis.

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    1. The book did disappoint me a bit – perhaps I expected something more challenging from Shafak. I am critical in my review because I thought I must justify why I am not giving this book its full 5 stars, but it is still a relatively good book, especially the first part. It does something different with the structure and concept, so it attracted attention this way.

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  3. Such a great review! It sounds so promising but I know exactly what you mean by a book attempting too much and becoming an essay – Gun Island by Amitava Ghosh which I read a few months back is the same! There are gimmicks and exotic locales but at the end of the day, no fluid story!

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    1. Thank you! I know Shafak as an “episodic” writer actually because the only other book I read by her was “The Architect’s Apprentice” and it was largely composed of “episodes” with no fluid story, something that I did not particularly like. Here, in “10 Minutes”, she has her reason to write like this of course because Leila’s memory centres on different events, but I still felt that it was all too much in reinforcing the same message but going about in a “clever” way.

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  4. I must say I loved this book and felt that many of the things you saw as weaknesses were its strengths – the stories of her friends, the rather uplifting ending, the gorgeous sensuous language. I have found it utterly memorable in the months since I read it, both the characters and the portrayal of Istanbul with its two faces looking east and west. As always, it goes to prove that all books work differently for different readers!

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    1. It surprised me that I did not particularly like this book. I don’t want to sound awful, but, in all honestly, Shafak did not tell me anything I did not know already, whether it is about comparing east and west, or the plight of people. Perhaps, I wanted some deeper insight provided going beyond just telling me about tastes and smells. Since it is memory we are talking about, it cannot be just like another factual story; it colours events, imagines and has other qualities. I even expected some transcendental experience AS Leila’s brain was both shutting down and experiencing last surges in activity, and not just a couple of paragraph on something like that at the end. Perhaps, the fact that Shafak wrapped it all up so nicely is another thing that I did not appreciate. It was all so self-congratulating, even.

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  5. I love the idea of a “neuro scientific” concept, as well as the idea of exploring hurt people in society, but the second half of this book does sound a little boring. I’ll put it on my TBR anyway, because I love the theme of a mind slipping.

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  6. Great review! I’ve been curious about this one because of its place on the Booker shortlist, and the first part of the book sounds so striking that I’m tempted to try reading just to enjoy that part of it, but the latter half does sound like a bit of a mess. I’m honestly rather surprised this one advanced to the shortlist… But the same idea, that the brain doesn’t die immediately, is introduced in another longlisted book, Frankissstein, and I loved the concept there, so I’m still considering giving this one a try. But based on your review, I’m certainly not in a hurry!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! It was a difficult book to review because, on the one hand, there is this intriguing concept of a brain dying there, as well as an interesting Turkish setting, but, on the other, there is no “depth” there as such, and I really wanted Shafak to confront certain issues in her book head-on; instead there was this “flowery” language and no feeling that the book is significant. I probably should have realised after reading Shafak’s “The Architect’s Apprentice” that I would not like that much Shafak’s other books because her style remains the same. I want to read Frankissstein, too, thanks for the recommendation!

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      1. I hope you enjoy Frankissstein! I found the ideas it examined very thought-provoking, even though the book is light on plot.
        I’m sorry to hear you found Shafak’s style so consistent across more of her work though, I’d been hoping that I might get on better with another of her books if 10 Minutes disappoints, but flowery language with a lack of depth does not sound encouraging. I think I’ll be bumping Shafak down the TBR list, at least for the immediate future!

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