10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

This is not only a story about a hard life of a prostitute, her life and death pains, paired with a gallery of unique and original characters, but a story about life, death, abuse, secrets and lies, life in a repressive society, the fight for freedom, the fight for the right to be different, told with such beauty, kindness and emotion.

Shafak’s writing is extremely beautiful, at the same time as it is strong, bold and very susceptible to emotions, vulnerability. She shows that truth is always different than it seems. She describes her characters with such warmth, such lifelikeness that it is impossible not to relate to them, worry what would happen to them, hope their stories would have a happy end.

But there is no happy end, happy ends are impossible, there are only better versions of bad. Better versions of bad because good people make those better versions happen. Good, authentic people, living their lives and beliefs in a way they think is right. Those people are the people that are, in the end (and from the beginning), harmed the most. They suffer the most, but live the most, live in the most authentic and real way possible.

“Unspoken words ran between the women of this town like washing lines strung between houses.”

The same way as in The Bastard of Istanbul, Shafak’s novel is at the same time a love letter to her beautiful city. She describes Istanbul in such a way, filled with love and beauty at the same time as well as with hardship and pain, that I think every reader has to wish to visit it, immediately. A city beautiful and harsh at the same time. Because, what she shows us is the not obvious truth, dualities, multiplicities.

„slowly, the dawn was breaking. Streaks of colour – peach bellinis, orange martinis, strawberry margaritas, frozen negronis – steamed above the horizon, east to west. Within a matter of seconds, calls to prayer from the surrounding mosques reverberated around her, none of them synchronized. Far in the distance, the Bosphorus, walking from its turquoise sleep, yawned with force. A fishing boat headed back to port, its engine coughing smoke.”

“Istanbul was an illusion. A magician’s trick gone wrong. Istanbul was a dream that existed solely in the minds of hashish eaters. In truth, there was no Istanbul. There were multiple Istanbuls – struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive. (…) All these Istanbuls lived and breathed inside one another, like matryoshka dolls that had come to life.”

“Istanbul was a liquid city. Nothing was permanent here. Nothing felt settled.”

She combines the traditional, the supernatural and the scientific in the stories about pregnancy, giving birth, religion and life and death itself.

The person that has died is not completely dead in the minutes after his death and even later before his burial. Leila relives her life after her death, being the narrator of her life (although the narration is in the 3rd person), knowing some things about her life she couldn’t have known, she is the omniscient narrator of her own story and of her own life.

“Perhaps a person’s thoughts survived longer than his heart, his dreams longer than his pancreas, his wishes longer than his gall-bladder… if that were true, shouldn’t human beings be considered semi-alive as long as the memories that shaped them were still rippling, still part of this world?”

Shafak’s descriptions are so vivid and powerful, she constructs a world that begins with associations, flows on with images and emotions. Every chapter of Leila’s reminiscences begins with an association that, in the end, brings us to the important, the problem, trauma or happiness: cardamom coffee, watermelon, taste of soil, sulphuric acid, deep fried mussels etc. In a Proustian way, the scents and tastes open the memory for more memories, and unfortunately, for more difficult memories.

“But human memory resembles a late night reveller who has had a few too many drinks: hard as it tries, it just cannot follow a straight line. It staggers through a maze of inversions, often moving in dizzying zigzags, immune to reason and liable to collapse altogether.”

“She regarded her memory as a graveyard; segments of her life were buried there, lying in separate graves, and she had no intention of reviving them.”

Tequila Leila just got my heart, the same as each and every one of her friends. This is what amazing writing looks like.

“The ghastly and the graceful – everything was present around her, in rich abundance. Everything but pain. There was no pain down here.

Her mind had fully shut down, her body was already decomposing and her soul was chasing a betta fish. She was relieved to have left the Cemetery of the Companionless. She was happy to be part of this vibrant realm, this comforting harmony that she had never thought possible, and this vast blue, bright as the birth of a new flame.

Free at last.”

“Far in the distance, beyond the roofs and domes, was the sea, shimmering like glass, and deep in the water, somewhere and everywhere, was Leila – a thousand little Leilas stuck to fish fins and seaweed, laughing from inside clam shells.”

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