📖 🇹🇷 #21: A Turkish Booker Prize nominee

Elif Shafak's mesmerising psychological fiction

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Elif Shafak is another author who has been on my radar for years, but who I’ve somehow never got round to reading. On my sister’s recommendation, I decided to read 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, one of the nominees for the 2019 Booker Prize.

Set in Istanbul, the novel follows fortysomething sex worker “Tequila Leila” in the moments following her death. We meet Leila as she loses consciousness in a dustbin on the outskirts of Istanbul. As her brain begins to shut down, Leila casts her mind back over her life and shares a series of personal anecdotes. Each of her stories is prompted by a smell or a taste—cardamom coffee, spiced goat stew, wedding cake, single malt whiskey—enabling Shafak to recall Leila’s childhood in rich, sensory prose.

These anecdotes make up the first half of the novel, which details Leila’s escape from a childhood filled with lies and abuse to her adult life in Istanbul, where she winds up working in a brothel. Along the way, we’re introduced to Leila’s closest friends, a group of fellow “undesirables”, referred to as “the five”. There’s Sabotage Sinan, the boy next-door who has been besotted with Leila since they were children; Nostalgia Nalan, a trans woman who has fled her traditional family in Anatolia; Jameelah, a Somali sex worker; Zaynab122, a 122cm tall fortune teller; and Hollywood Humeyra, a singer who is hiding from her abusive husband. Through these characters’ stories, Shafak probes topics including the exploitation of refugees, the treatment of sex workers in Turkey, and violence against women. “Women accused of indecency weren’t always killed,” muses Humeyra during her introductory chapter, “sometimes they were just persuaded to kill themselves.”

Once 10 minutes and 38 seconds have passed, Leila loses consciousness and the book pivots to a more traditional narrative: an almost farcical adventure in which Leila’s friends attempt to rescue her body from the Cemetery of the Companionless in order to give her a proper send off.

Every now and then, a boat full of asylum seekers capsized in these waters… the bodies were loaded into refrigerated vans designed to carry ice cream and frozen fish, and driven to a special graveyard—the Cemetery of the Companionless. Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis, Somalis, Eritreans, Sudanese, Nigerians, Libyans, Iranians, Pakistanis—they were buried so far from where they were born, laid to rest haphazardly wherever space was available. Around them, on all sides, were Turkish citizens who, though neither asylum seekers nor undocumented migrants, had, in all likelihood, felt equally unwelcome in their own homeland. So it was that, unbeknownst to tourists and even many locals, there was a burial ground in Kilyos—one of a kind. It was reserved for three types of dead: the unwanted, the unworthy and the unidentifiable.

Leila is an easy character to root for: her voice is at once vibrant, sharp, and vulnerable and Shafak gives the reader a rich insight into her interior life. Shafak’s storytelling is masterful and though 10 Minutes 38 Seconds is brutal, at times relentlessly so, it’s also a hopeful and heart-warming love letter to friendship. A truly breathtaking read.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak (Penguin, 2019)

More books by Turkish authors:

  • The Girl in the Tree by Şebnem İşigüzel, tr. Mark David Wyers

  • The Well of Trapped Words by Sema Kaygusuz, tr. Maureen Freely

  • Memed, My Hawk by Yaşar Kemal, tr. Edouard Roditi

  • My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, tr. Erdag Göknar

  • The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

  • Labyrinth by Burhan Sönmez, tr. Umit Hussein

  • The Time of Mute Swans by Ece Temelkuran, tr. Kenneth Dakan

  • The Adventures of Misfit Daphne Shaman by Buket Uzuner

What have you read recently?

If you’ve read a brilliant book in translation or want to pass on a recommendation, I’d love to hear about it! For this project, I’m focussing on contemporary fiction and short stories, with a preference for female authors—but I won’t be too dogmatic about it so do share recommendations that don’t quite fit the bill, too.

You can get in touch by replying to this email or leaving a comment. I’ll be featuring your recommendations in upcoming newsletters, and I’ll keep a growing list here.

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Bookmarked is written by Tabatha Leggett. Thanks to Jenn Amur, Joe Bates, Harika Iridag, and Mishia Leggett for their recommendations for this issue! If you know someone who would enjoy this newsletter, please forward it to them!