Book review : 10 Minutes 38 seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

download (3)I had guessed it right that this book would make it to the Booker Prize shortlist . The premise of  a life – story told through the final string of memories that the clinically dead person has , before the brain shuts down , was fascinating . During the final moments , when the brain tries think in its oxygen – deprived state , obviously it is going to throw up the memories / impressions which it had formed strongly . . .

The book is divided into three sections – Mind , Body and Soul .


As it can be easily guessed , the Mind section tells the story of Tequila Leila , through her swansong – memories . Somehow , the mind seems to ” remember ” every object of her memory by its smell and taste  – curious , isn ‘ t it ? With every ticking minute , Leila ‘ s brain throws up another deep – seated memory – the taste of spiced goat stew , the goat sacrificed by her father to celebrate the birth of her brother ; the taste of the home – made lemon & sugar waxing mixture used by the women in the neighborhood to wax their legs ; the taste of cardamom tea shared with a handsome University student whom she fell in love  with , when he takes shelter in the brothel where she works ; the smell and taste of watermelon and the memories of a summer vacation with family . . .

Every memory gives us a glimpse into a key event in Leila ‘ s life and the friend she made because of that incident . . .

Leila & her friends – their story 

Leyla Afife ( full of virtue )  Kamile ( high in merit ) , the daughter of a tailor in the city of Van , rechristened herself as Tequila Leila ,  following her elopement from her home and subsequent entanglement with prostitution in Istanbul . Yes , her middle and last names seem to make a mockery of her . . .

She has five close friends in the city of Istanbul – Nostalgia Nalan , Sabotage Sinan ( the only man in this girl gang ) , Jameelah , Hollywood Humeyra and Zaynab122 . Each has his / her own story on how they ended up where they are today and how he / she became friends with Leila . Their stories are as fascinating as Leila ‘ s . Like her , they are from the fringes of the society and Istanbul ,  the  bustling Turkish capital would not miss them if one of them turns up dead one day . . . Like Leila , they too , might become news on national television if they were also murdered gruesomely ; the newspapers might carry reports about their deaths , but they will first seek to reassure the ” normal female citizens ” that there is no threat for them . They had known all of this but until Leila ‘ s death they had not been slapped on the face with it . . .

The author uses several significant events of Leila ‘ s short life as pointers to the patriarchal society ‘ s aspects  . Some of them below :

  • how her mother ‘ s frequent miscarriages ( a few even nearly fatal ) except for Leila ‘ s birth  did not deter her father to keep trying for a son . . .  And how her mother relies on the birth of the child ( preferably a boy ) to cement her place in the family  , her being the second wife of  Leila ‘ s father  .
  • how right – wing ideologies slowly infiltrate ordinary families when the men of the family , like Leila ‘ s father ,  are brainwashed by right-wing ” spiritual leaders ” into restricting the women folk  and the children of the house  in order to  ” put an end to this man – made regime and bring back God – made sharia ” .  So , meetings with any of the progressive neighbors , ” alla franga “ magazines ,  newspapers , TV – watching  – almost every single aspect that had provided the ladies some news about the world outside their doorstep had to  be banned . . .
  • how the ” reputation ” of the girl was more important than addressing the abuse the girl had suffered . . . Everything else should be swept under the carpet . . .
  • how her being a prostitute , seemed to imply that there is no need for sympathy in the way she met her end ;  how , even the youngsters , had been taught to view her as a ” fallen ” woman who had no  claim to their  pity / sympathy but only deserved all the  scorn and revulsion one could muster .
  • how Leila had to deal with every random ” righteous ” man ‘ s ire as she is seen as a blot on the society . . . Finally , she had to die in the hands of one such man who had taken it upon himself ” to turn whores into angels ” .

There is  no forced inclusion of plot elements to illustrate these themes  – the story rolls seamlessly .  The author has tried out some new analogies which are interesting .

What is the story of Tequila Leila , the prostitute whose body was found in a dustbin in Istanbul ? What are the friends ‘ stories and the stories behind some of the nicknames ? 


Now , having been forced to face the society ‘ s apathy and worse still ,  the judgmental opinions , they decide to give their friend a decent funeral . Normally , people like Leila ‘ s and her friends will be put up in the Cemetery of the Companionless when they died . The fact that Leila had friends who were ready to give her a proper funeral did not matter to the state – when a body is unclaimed or refused by the family , the person is buried in the ” Cemetery of the Companionless ” in Kilyos , no more questions asked . . .

So , the five friends make a rash decision to dig out Leila from her grave in the cemetery at night . . . They go about muddling in the Scooby – Doo gang style . . . [ perhaps this parallel is due to Scooby Doo  being in the news very often , these last few days . . . ]

What happened to their mission ? Was it successful or not ? 


Finally , Leila ‘ s soul gets free and makes an acquaintance she had long wanted to . . . Who is it ??

Summing it all up –

To sum it up , the writing & the story has the reader turning the pages fast . . . With the life story of a prostitute , the writer has had the space to pack several segments which mirror the society ‘ s attitude to the people on the fringes and it ‘ s misogynistic tendencies and she has done a commendable job . . .

In the backdrop of the characters ‘ lives , history is always in the making – the construction of the Bosphorous bridge , the massacre in Istanbul on International Workers ‘ Day ( 1997 ) . . . Sometimes , characters are present in the moment when events , which had made to the history books since then , were being enacted – often without them realizing it . Of course , we all are or will be . . .

Perhaps , the midnight grave digging and all that drama , brought this book down  to sit with all other populist contemporary fiction in the bookshelves . . . With only the first section , it would have been in a league of its own . . .

Still , I hope the questions might have sufficiently intrigued you  to add this book to your TBR . Yes , I would recommend this book . . . I only wish that Elif had known when to stop writing . . .

If you have already read the book , tell me your thoughts about the book in the comments section below . . . Is there something in the post you disagree with ? Feel free to write about it as well in the comments section . . .

Until the next review then . . .

3 thoughts on “Book review : 10 Minutes 38 seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

  1. I have been browsing on-line greater than three hours today, but I never discovered
    any fascinating article like yours. It’s lovely value enough for me.
    In my view, if all website owners and bloggers made excellent content as you did, the internet might be
    much more helpful than ever before. Hi, I log on to your
    new stuff on a regular basis. Your story-telling
    style is awesome, keep up the good work! It’s appropriate time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy.
    I’ve learn this submit and if I may just I desire to counsel you some fascinating things or suggestions.
    Perhaps you could write subsequent articles referring
    to this article. I wish to read even more things about it!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s