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10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

Turkish-British novelist Elif Shafak's novel entitled 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World (2019) is two series of events connected in the middle, at which point the brain of our protagonist ultimately shuts down. In the first part, “Tequila Leila" has just died (right from the beginning) and has been tossed into a dumpster, where her brain, gradually shutting down, recalls her life from birth right up to the present. A lot of bad has happened to Leila over those years; multiple times she has been the victim of sexual violence and was stigmatized by Turkish society for being a sex worker. There is love in the book, as well as her five friends, who are regarded as social misfits for various reasons too.

The second part is an account of these friends' actions to make at least a small bit of the wrong right for Leila, who has been buried in Istanbul's Cemetery of the Companionless (a real place).

I thought the book was very good but slightly disjointed, and perhaps it was intended to be this way. In the end I felt that I knew Leila's friends better than I'd known her in the first half, which didn't seem fair to her somehow. But I suppose that if the whole book were those ten minutes and 38 seconds of her slipping away from this (strange) world, it would have been too sad to read, and perhaps would've lacked the capacity to hold a plausible life-affirming ending. Also, the adventure and occasionally comic elements in the second half felt true to human nature, as irrationality and humor and joy can spring forth from grief and mourning. This, we come to understand, is what Leila would have wanted. But what I wanted was for more justice from the story! Then again, Shafak surely wants this too, and hopefully her book will serve as a device for inspiring change against the real-world injustices faced by Leila, her friends, and all those they represent.


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