After Her Heart Stops Beating, a Woman Continues to Think

By Elif Shafak

The Booker Prize became one of the world’s most prestigious awards for fiction by setting for itself one of literary criticism’s loftiest goals: to recognize the year’s best novel written in English. “Best” is, of course, impossible to quantify; one man’s trash is another man’s treasure, or, put in a book-lover’s terms, one person’s one-star Goodreads review is another person’s compulsively readable favorite, and for this reason the Booker Prize announcements are met annually with controversy.

The prize’s magic is in its endorsement to a global English-reading audience of books many might not otherwise pick up. This year’s finalists included, for example, a thousand-page novel consisting mostly of one sentence (“Ducks, Newburyport,” by Lucy Ellmann); a book written in a mix of poetry and prose (“Girl, Woman, Other,” by Bernardine Evaristo, who became the prize’s co-winner along with Margaret Atwood, for “The Testaments,” her sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”); and a bold, subversive, excellent novel, “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World,” by Elif Shafak.

This last is the 17th book by Shafak, a British-Turkish novelist who is one of Turkey’s most widely read authors. Shafak’s reputation for challenging the Turkish state’s official narrative of itself has come at a cost. For acknowledging the Armenian genocide in her 2006 novel “The Bastard of Istanbul” she was put on trial for “insulting Turkishness” (the charges were ultimately dropped); and for confronting sexual violence in her fiction, including in “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World,” she has been investigated by Turkish authorities for obscenity. Shafak’s work has spread around the world despite this attempted censorship, but it hasn’t yet reached all its potential American audience — those many readers who might be engrossed by Shafak’s unflinching fiction that explores gender, abuse and political repression.

“10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” tells the story of Tequila Leila, an Istanbul prostitute. The novel’s title and first half describe the last moments of Leila’s consciousness as she crosses from life into death. When the book begins, Leila’s heart has already stopped beating, but her thoughts sputter on: “People thought you changed into a corpse the instant you exhaled your last breath. But things were not clear-cut like that. Just as there were countless shades between jet black and brilliant white, so there were multiple stages of this thing called ‘eternal rest.’ If a border existed between the Realm of Life and the Realm of Afterlife, Leila decided, it must be as permeable as sandstone.”

Leila comes to that decision while stuffed into a rubbish bin on the city’s outskirts, where she’s just been murdered. Who was she? Who’s killed her? Who will remember her after she’s gone? What will be the consequences of this brutality? These are the questions the book takes up, with plenty of room for grief, humor and love in between.

“10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” situates readers at the start with a map of Istanbul, marked with landmarks given new meaning through the novel’s narrative: the Intercontinental Hotel, the Cemetery of the Companionless, the Bosphorus Bridge. This image sets the tone for the pages that follow. Where some other books’ maps are flatly illustrated, providing a crisp view of a place from directly overhead, this one is drawn from an angle, its edges obscured by clouds. A sea gull is foregrounded. Istanbul is cramped underneath. This becomes a neat visual representation not only of the sites in the story but of the author’s intent. As sweeping as the novel is, moving across time, space, characters and planes of existence, it stays grounded in the sensations that make up daily life. It has both enormous ambitions and laser-sharp attention to detail. The map is a promise: “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” will never take a bird’s-eye view without also showing exactly which bird’s eyes we are peering through.

Shafak makes good on that vow. The novel’s first part, “The Mind,” places us in Leila’s brain. Second by second, we count down to her death while learning her life. Each minute that passes is distinguished by a sense memory: the weight of the salt with which the midwife at Leila’s birth covered her infant body; the smell of bubbling lemon, sugar and water on the stove of Leila’s conservative childhood home; the taste of cardamom coffee, strong and dark, that Leila drank during her breaks at the brothel where she worked. As Leila’s consciousness ebbs, her memories grow rangier. We come to know not only the flavor-rich moments and places that formed her, but also the people Leila knew in those settings. Her parents, her brother, her madam, her lover. We peek into the histories of Leila’s five most treasured friends. “She had never told her friends this,” Shafak writes, “but they were her safety net. … On days when she wallowed in self-pity, her chest cracking open, they would gently pull her up and breathe life into her lungs.”

At last, the life goes out of Leila’s lungs. Yet the support of her safety net remains. These five friends — Nostalgia Nalan, Hollywood Humeyra, Jameelah, Zaynab122 and Sabotage Sinan — are the characters who shape the novel’s second part, “The Body.”

Like Tequila Leila, these five have been made outsiders in Turkish society. Nalan is a transgender woman, Humeyra is a runaway, Jameelah was trafficked to Istanbul from Somalia and Zaynab122 has dwarfism. Sinan, the only man in the group, spends his days as a strait-laced office worker but leads a secret life at night. Together, they form what Nalan calls a “water family,” which can “occupy a bigger space than all your kin combined. But those who had never experienced what it felt like to be spurned by their own relatives would not understand this truth in a million years.” Each of these five appreciates how essential friendship can be. They resolve to give Leila the farewell that neither her kin nor the state will provide.

Where the novel’s first part was a character study, the second is a caper. Shafak’s narrative shifts from the internal to the external, from thoughts to action, and from the summing up of an entire life to the twists of one hectic day. Her skills as a writer — her confident pacing, emotional honesty and political consciousness — unite the two halves, making for a gripping and moving whole. Not every bit is perfect; a few characters are unevenly developed and the language can feel stilted in places. But these flaws hardly diminish the book’s overall quality.

The Booker judges chose this novel as one of the six best written in English this year. You may wish to argue with their list. Literary prizes are designed to spark debate. They seek to layer objectivity over the strange and subjective experience of reading a book, which no two people exactly agree upon. For my part, I’ll say “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World” is well deserving of honors. Shafak writes with vision, bravery and compassion. Her novel is a stunning portrait of a city, a society, a small community and a single soul.

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