10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak
Published: 6th June 2019
Setting: Istanbul, Turkey
Rating: 3.5 Stars
'In the first minute following her death, Tequila Leila's consciousness began to ebb, slowly and steadily, like a tide receding from the shore. Her brain cells, having run out of blood, were now completely deprived of oxygen. But they did not shut down. Not right away...' For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the sight of bubbling vats of lemon and sugar which the women use to wax their legs while the men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life - friends who are now desperately trying to find her.
Scientists opine that the sense of smell is the closest sensory faculty linked to memory. It is also highly emotive and can spontaneously trigger the recollection of long forgotten events or experiences. For Tequila Leila, a dead prostitute, murdered and thrown in a garbage bin in Istanbul, the smells of salt, cardamom coffee, watermelon and sulphuric acid engulf her in the 10 minutes 38 seconds after her heart has stopped but before her brain completely shuts down; dredging up long forgotten memories and taking her back to significant events in her life. From her birth where the midwife predicted hers would be a life of crying to meeting each of her 5 friends. The misfits. The companionless. Her support system and her chosen ‘water’ family.
Istanbul provides a befitting backdrop for this story with Shafak infusing titbits of this beautiful, often misunderstood and messy city which sets the tone and draws parallels to Tequila Leila’s life as it unravels in her last minutes of consciousness. Sectioned in three parts – The Mind, Body and Soul. The Mind which covers the first half of the book, counts down to the 10 minutes 38 seconds of Leila’s ebbing consciousness and this is by far the strongest and most engaging part of the book. As her fading senses evoke different memories, we get to see her full life and how despite the curveballs life threw at her, she was able to carve out a life for herself, nurturing a tribe of friends who in the end would ride hard for her. I do hope in this lifetime, I have a tribe that would go just as hard for me.
The 2nd and 3rd parts of this book - Body and Soul – are shaped by her five friends and this is where the books moves from being a compelling narrative to a really long TedTalk session. The language shifts and takes on an activist ‘preachy’ tone on the ill treatment of prostitutes, misfits and the unclaimed in Istanbul. Leila’s friends on learning of her death and subsequent burial at the Cemetery of the Companionless are determined to give her a proper burial befitting the kind of friend, and here, the melodrama begins – from the five digging up bodies in the cemetery to police car chases and eventual hurling of a body into the sea – it all seems a bit too dramatic and unreal. Leila’s friends were also unevenly developed with Nostalgia Nalan and Sabotage Sinan hogging a huge chunk of the narrative. Other characters such Jameelah are underdeveloped and easily forgettable, it felt as though the author added them on just for flavour – to meet the diversity threshold and further diversify this group of misfits.
I found it fascinating that a book that attempted to tie in all the realms of human existence –Mind, Body and Soul - struggled to find balance which is a true testament of the complexity of death; that even in fiction when you have full liberties to go wild with your imagination, one is never truly able to capture the essence of death and the soul.
I did enjoy a huge chunk of this book but I would have been ok had it ended at the 38th second of Tequila Leila’s consciousness.