Book Reviews

The soul purpose of a writer is to narrate a story that enchants and captivates his reader.

10 Minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

Every now and then comes along a book that stimulates your senses and jolts you awake. It’s language lucid and compelling draws you into the story. The narrative is by turns languid and swift, the characters forming right before your eyes are very real, with the archetypal human frailties that abound and yet rising above mediocrity in their own way. 10 Minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World is such a book.

The story revolves around a prostitute named Leila with her work name spiced up with the scintillating prefix of Tequila. Leila is a woman of the streets, working for a living at a brothel and at the start of the book has ended up dying in a dumpster, killed by persons who do not have any real connection with her.  

Tequila Leila’s flashback traces her birth in a middle class Turkish (Muslim) family where patriarchy is the norm and women are meant to be seen but not heard. Their hopes and dreams are subservient to a dominant father figure – Baba – who rules the house and family and quashes any silly dreams that girls might have of freedom of expression or a burning desire to actualise their existence.  

Early on in the book we are witness to the heart wrenching spectacle of Leila being handed away to her father’s second wife, while her mother can only watch in mute despair, her child being torn away from her bosom. The child grows up with her foster mother and calls her real mother “aunt”.

The theme of family and its clinging love, patriarchy in a Turkish household and the everyday simple pleasures of life as seen through the eyes of a small girl, are thoughtfully presented to the reader’s attention in a simple yet engaging way.

Coupled with the strong sense of familial bonding and joy along with filial loyalty looms the spectre of a sexual predator in young Leila’s life – her uncle who influences her youth and infects her innocence with his perverse behaviour which ultimately plays a pivotal role in Leila choosing her vocation – the oldest one in the world. Her insouciance in playing the prostitute is remarkable and unnerving – in the matter of fact way in which she accepts the lemon that life hands to her and in turn makes a cool glass of lemonade.

The author weaves the back stories of 5 friends that make up Leila’s universe and the special place that each one has in her heart – whether it is the spunky transvestite Nostalgia Nalan or the diminutive but feisty Zaynab122 or the ineffectual but highly emotional Sabotage Sinan. Leila’s friends play a pivotal role in the book as they come together to give their best friend a decent burial befitting a normal human being.

The author deftly sketches the warmth and intimacy of Leila’s childhood in the Turkish city of Van and her contrasting subsequent struggle to conform in the seedy and commercial brothels of Istanbul. Life in the suburbs (Van- the Pearl of the East) is portrayed in a simple yet elegant manner with the smells and sounds of nature comingling with the spice and sounds of a typical household.

The life that Tequila Leila endures later on is in stark contrast to the beauty and softness of nature, the sordid and bleak existence within the most celebrated brothel of Istanbul under the iron hand of Bitter Ma, its owner.

The book wends its way through the small and simple story by leaving behind a trail of scents and remembrances that intermingle with the characters and find their way with surprising ease into the reader’s heart. Sample this – “As the tastes of lemon and sugar melted on her tongue, so too her feelings dissolved into confusion.”

The central theme of the book is the story of an innocent girl forced into prostitution. But the author makes no apologies for Leila’s forced entry into the flesh trade. Rather it is a welcome escape from the stifling pleasures and perversities that she is subjected to during her childhood. Leyla’s transformation into the sexy and seductive Leila is a cold, hard and unapologetic look at sex workers and their sordid existence.

Leila’s existence as a prostitute is simply a job that she needs to do to feed herself and stay far away from the predators at home. Her philosophy suggests it’s better to be subjected to a dispassionate sexual encounter with a stranger than to stay cocooned in a silent, perverse and hypocritical culture at home that forbids women from even talking about sexual abuse at the hands of family or friends.

The book also cocks a snook at the lens of double standards and hypocrisy that societies around the world have reserved for a prostitute; that her body is to be enjoyed and lasciviously consumed within the seedy confines of the brothel at the dead of night but to be condescendingly reviled and abused in the cold light of day.

Eli Shafak is an astute author with a wonderful flair for writing poetic, passionate and politically incorrect prose. Her writing is imbued with the sights and sounds of her Turkish background. Her  writing is sharp and poignant and her verbal sketches of Istanbul mired in the political landscape of the 70s is on point. Most of all, her characters spring to life with a vivacity that is a joy to read, and their struggles and disappointment create an ache in the reader that stays well beyond the last page of the book.

It is in the end, a simple story that morphs into an inspirational tale of friendship, women empowerment and a triumph of the human spirit; therefore, a must read for the avid and discerning reader.