I was initially put off by the title of Elif Shafak’s 11th novel: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds on This Strange World. It didn’t give me any clues, or so I thought, about the subject matter, or the theme, or the characters. And so, because it was in a pile of books all clamouring to be read before my library loans expired I almost returned it without opening the cover. But on the cover is a ringing endorsement from someone I’ve never heard of. Some-one called Hanif Kureishi, who I now know, thanks to Wikipedia, is included in a list of the 50 greatest British writers since 1945. He says Elif Shafak is “one of the best writers in the world today”. That’s quite a claim, and it had me open the book for an initial peak inside. And inside, there’s probably the most interesting dedication I’ve come across :
To the women of Istanbul and the city of Istanbul, which is, and always has been, a she-city.
I was getting more interested. On the very next page, the epigraph is a quote from Albert Einstein, one that in two sentences reminds us that time, as we know it, as we live it, is an illusion. A human construct. Apt, I thought, given the dedication.
Now he has again preceded me a little in parting from this strange world. This has no importance. For people like us who believe in physics, the separation between past, present and future has only the importance of an admittedly tenacious illusion.
Albert Einstein on the death of his closet friend, Michele Besso
Perhaps this mysterious book would have something to offer me, after all. Less doubting, but still uncertain, I turned the page and there I found a hand sketched map of Istanbul complete with a clearly enumerated key. It’s as beguiling a map as any I’ve encountered in any fantasy book I’ve ever read, the sort of map that promises a thrilling journey to places full of mystery and adventure. The sort of map that tells you the story teller knows where she’s going, that it will be okay to trust her. And, it is.
Leila, the protagonist, is dead from the beginning. But her story is not done. Not yet. And once commenced, I was gripped by Leila’s story and by Leila the character. Here is a woman who is an outcast from “society”, rejected by her family, used and abused, some would say a victim of patriarchy, and maybe they’d be right. But Leila is a woman so loved by her friends that they risk everything to honour her life. This from one of her friends Nalan:
Nalan had always assumed that she would die first. In every group of old and tested friends there was one person who knew instinctively that they would leave before the others. And Nalan had been certain that that person was her. All those oestrogen supplements and testosterone – blocking treatments and pot-op painkillers, not to mention long years of heavy smoking, unhealthy eating and excessive drinking … It had to be her. Not Leila who was full of life and compassion. It was a source of endless surprise — and slight annoyance —to Nalan that Istanbul had not hardened Leila into cynicism and bitterness the way she knew it had hardened her. (P 199)
Ten Minutes 38 seconds in This Strange World is a work of fiction, of love, of imagination. It’s an art form. It’s a novel whose form is complex but not complicated. It’s beguiling. It’s honest. The narrator brings a gimlet eye to the world. Best of all, there are no broken promises from this author. She delivers from the get go. And what she delivers, through her murdered protagonist Leila and her friends is a love letter to life, friendship, to language, to the power of story.
There’s lots that could be said about the politics of this book, about patriarchy, about misogyny; and, about freedom — about who has it and who does not. But for me, at the end of the day, this is simply, and perhaps most importantly, a story about the beauty of humanity. It’s a story about the worst of us. It’s a story about the best of us.
Read the review from Ron Charles of the Washington Post here.
Not everyone is quite such a fan. Read the review from the New Statesman here.
Elif Shafak is an accomplished novelist who thinks critically about ideas including The Politics of Fiction. Check out her Ted Talk: The Politics of Fiction
I’m looking forward to reading more from her.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds on This Strange World by Elif Shafak (2019) Viking
Opening sentence: Her name was Leila.
Shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2019
Categories: On Books