10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Bloomsbury USA. Sept. 2019. 320p. ISBN 9781635574470. $27. F
The year is 1990; the place, Istanbul. Tequila Leila, a 43-year old prostitute, has just been murdered and thrown into a dumpster. The “10 minutes 38 seconds” of the title refers to the period immediately after death and just before bodily decay sets in. The narrative moves back and forth through time, describing Tequila Leila’s birth and difficult childhood in the provincial city of Van, her life on the Street of Brothels, her burial in the Cemetery of the Companionless, and the lives of her five closest friends, all considered outcasts in Turkish society. Short-listed for this year’s Booker Prize, the novel is a beautifully written tour de force of exemplary storytelling. Shafak, the highly acclaimed, award-winning British Turkish author of 17 books (e.g., Three Daughters of Eve), reveals how historical events and social norms transformed Tequila Leila and her friends. Istanbul comes alive as a complex character embodying East vs. West, religious vs. secular, ancient vs. contemporary, and women’s rights vs. patriarchy.
VERDICT Sights, smells, tastes, and a strong sense of injustice as well as unexpected acts of kindness all inform the novel’s complex structure. Its powerful insights into Turkey’s past and present challenges and the world today make it highly recommended.

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