10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World  – ★★★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 )). 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.