Elif Shafak has always been the most compassionate of writers. She sees the unseen; she lends her considerable voice to the silenced. Turkey’s most widely read female novelist, her latest work written in English, 10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in This Strange World, is everything we have come to expect from Shafak. Here is not only that exquisite compassion and trademark humanity but also a vibrant evocation of a hidden Istanbul in the middle of the 20th century; touching, idiosyncratic friendships and the complex inner lives of the female characters for which she has long been known.
It appears to start at the end: a dead prostitute in a city dumpster, a story we might think we know. But Leila is humanised immediately: “Last night she had left her fingerprints on a whisky glass, and a trace of her perfume — Paloma Picasso, a birthday present from her friends — on the silk scarf she had tossed aside on the bed of a stranger . . . ” This, then, is not a cliché, a salutary tale, a statistic. This is not “a prostitute” but a woman, brought instantly and vividly to life at this, the moment of her death.
Or rather, it is the 10 minutes and 38 seconds after her clinical death. Leila’s synapses are still firing, and in this state of heightened awareness a series of memories rise up unbidden. “Although her heart had stopped beating, her brain was resisting, a fighter till the end . . . Her memory surged forth, eager and diligent, collecting pieces of a life that was speeding to a close.”
Rich, sensual recollections follow: the smell of lemon and sugar that pulls Leila back to waxing day in the women’s quarters of her childhood home in the eastern province of Van; the taste of salt drawing her back to the day of her own birth, and recalling the midwife who buried the baby beneath a mound of salt crystals in order to test the new infant’s will to live.
Baby Leila takes her time deciding but eventually chooses life — and with it the pain and suffering of existence.
We already know that baby’s life will not turn out to be an easy one. Sweet watermelon evokes a childhood trauma, and the beginning of the end of Leila’s innocence at the hands of a charismatic, powerful abuser. Cardamom coffee is the taste of Istanbul’s street of brothels, her almost inevitable destination thereafter.
Woven in between Leila’s own stories are the stories of her five cherished friends: her beloved, constructed family after her increasingly religious father has disowned her. These are the companions who will mourn her death, she knows, and give her the funeral she would expect: frankincense and camphor, music and burgundy roses.
Her friends are immigrants and underdogs, Marxists and runaways, and their own diverse, eccentric histories are one of the novel’s particular pleasures. Leila may be trash to the city of Istanbul — now literally, dumped in a wheelie bin — but she was a woman who loved and was loved, and who mattered. There is a simple beauty to this network of friendships, and their respect for one another stands in poignant contrast to their social standing beyond.
Rebecca Solnit has written extensively on the various ways in which women are silenced within a patriarchal society, the erasing of their voices and histories, going on to note that murder is therefore the ultimate way to rob a woman of power over her own narrative. Like Solnit, Shafak is an ardent and eloquent feminist, and here she temporarily arrests this silencing, for though Leila has been murdered she has not yet lost the power to tell her own story.
It is ironic, then, that almost all of the episodes in the life she recounts have one or another form of women’s powerlessness at their heart.
As Turkish writers know all too well, it is impossible for fiction to be truly apolitical and reading Shafak, one wouldn’t want it to be. Never didactic, here is an object lesson in how fiction can at once entertain and enlighten. Faint traces of magic and superstition linger, and Leila’s heightened state is reflected in the prose, which is lush and rich and lucid.
This is a novel that gives voice to the invisible, the untouchable, the abused and the damaged, weaving their painful songs into a thing of beauty.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, by Elif Shafak, Penguin Viking, RRP£14.99, 320 pages
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