7. A book written in the Middle East: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
List Progress: 15/30
TW: Violence, abuse of sex workers
It’s a staple of crime fiction: the dead prostitute left in the trash. The woman is anonymous, and is usually one of several victims: no one pays attention unless there are multiple bodies or a non-prostitute is also killed. It’s a trope, an inciting incident, a beginning to a detective’s story. But in 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, the body belongs to Tequila Leila, and this is the ending of her long, lush story. She is a person who has lived a full, colorful life: there has been a lot of pain, but also a lot of warmth and joy, mainly with her five close friends. For ten minutes and thirty eight seconds after she dies, her brain keeps working, and she looks back on everyone and everything that led her to that trash can. The world, and the city of Istanbul specifically, might see Leila as disposable, but Turkish author Elif Shafak makes it clear that no one is disposable, not even a woman left in the literal trash.
The premise of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds seems like a set-up for a grim novel, a story of suffering and pain and murder. And while it does contain all of those things, the real story comes from the warmth and the love. The reader sees the abuses of Leila’s childhood, and the rejection she ultimately felt from her birth family, but is also shown the family she built for herself in the chaos of Istanbul. Interspersed between her dying visions, each of her five fellow outcasts gets a chapter sketching their own journeys. Then in the back half of the novel, when the ten minutes have long run out and Leila is no more, they are the family who set out to honor her and carry on her memory. True love is being there day in and day out. True love is going to Leila’s apartment and feeding her cat.
Justice is not the goal in this story. No matter what does or doesn’t happen to her killer, there is a Leila-shaped hole in the world. Justice is so far beyond what her friends can give her, that what they are all really striving for is peace, for Leila’s spirit and for themselves. Justice alone couldn’t give 10 Minutes 38 Seconds a happy ending, but peace almost manages it. Elif Shafak has crafted a beautiful story about love among the disposable, with the warmth to make it readable and all the more powerful. Shafak has found the joy amongst the tragedy and the gems among the trash and made them shine.
Would I Recommend It: Very strongly.