Book review: ’10 minutes, 38 seconds in this strange world’ by Elif Shafak

(no spoilers)

If I were to define my favorite kind of writing, it would be the type that can blast you into a different reality, and in doing so, teach you something about what it is to be human. The kind that makes you look at things again, whether that be your relationships or the tiny bug on the windowsill. The kind you look up from to realise that you haven’t moved for four hours, that your company have silently walked away and the television was turned off because everyone knew you couldn’t hear it.

The kind whose essence you can feel settle in your body as you go to close the last page – like you’re bigger, more full of experience, changed….

All of this is a really pretentious way of saying that I really fucking loved this book. 

I hadn’t ever heard of Elif Shafak before (shame on me), and I now know that I will be spending the next few months making my way meticulously through her other work – she’s written seventeen books, praise be! 

Many of my favorite books of all time have a slow burn, and in many cases when I started reading them, I didn’t anticipate liking them as much as they did. But this novel has one of the strongest first pages I have ever read. If I could, I would quote the whole thing, but if so, I’d be tempted to do that with every page, this review will take me days to write and tbh, I’m keen to get on with her next book. 

It starts with a simple sentence: “Her name was Leila.” This is powerful in an immediate way because you realise that the author is using the past tense, and powerful in a myriad of others as you come to read the rest of the book. Our protagonist retains in death the identity that she chose for herself, rather than the identity she was given. This means everything to the unknown reader and sets up this novel beautifully to explore the idea of family, loyalty, identity, life, death and friendship. 

On the first page, we learn that ‘Tequila Leila’ (as she’s known to her friends) is not at home, cuddled up in bed and warm, but instead she lies dead in a metal rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul – a city which lives and breathes its own personality as loudly as the characters that live within it. We feel immediate devastation that this woman, a person who Elif describes with intimate detail, has met her end here. As Leila herself says: “She could not believe that her mortal existence was over and done with […] Last night she had left her fingerprints on a whisky glass …” 

In this universe, the mind within Leila’s corpse continues to think, to feel, for ten minutes and thirty eight seconds even after her death. She is able to take stock of her life, revisit memories as her cells scream their final goodbyes and her senses are flooded with old smells and tastes as her body shuts down. We go on to learn about her childhood and her family – in itself not pleasant, as her home is filled with secrets, lies and a religious intensity that completely robs her of her autonomy and freedom. All the while, we are aware that modern-day Leila is still in that dumpster, alone and slipping towards the end.

This book shows beauty in a non-traditional sense. It shows the dichotomy of a controlling father who longs to prove to his God that he is pure and worthy, but lacks any kind of moral fibre of his own. He will gladly stamp on his neighbour and disown his daughter if it means that he can be seen as almighty and powerful. He genuinely believes that he is seeking a life of purity and goodness, when in fact it is his daughter’s ‘water family’ (as opposed to blood family), her friends – Sabotage Sinan (a ‘weak’ male misfit from childhood), Nostalgia Nalan (a brave and loyal trans woman, outcast from society), Jameelah (a fellow prostitute), Zaynab122 (a 122 cm tall fortune teller) and Hollywood Humeyra (a compassionate woman who helped her save a cat) – who truly show us, and Leila, the meaning of unconditional, pure love and care.

I’m going to put my hands up and say that I knew very little about Turkey up until this point, having never visited. I was aware of some of the customs, but being able to see Istanbul from the eyes of someone who was living there, and trapped in the corrupt system (police station bribes, sex workers occupying the lowest rung of society, political uprisings, massacres, religious zealots and trafficking to name a few) was revelationary. Leila tries to climb out of the place in society that she is forced to inhabit, and in doing so gives inspiration to many other women, but is beaten back. There is little about Leila’s life to find joy in – she has suffered so extremely (and we as readers are forced to observe this suffering) that it seems almost impossible that she could continue on. And yet, we believe her kindness, and the pockets of joy that she is able to find are real, because the character has been written with such dimension that we can see all her complexities.

I cried twice reading this – the last instance was full on, true fat dollop-y tears where I had to take a break and wash my face because my moisturiser was mixing with my tears and stinging my eyes. #firstworldproblems

Another thing that I loved so about ‘10 minutes’ was the beautiful language that Shafak manages to spin throughout. Every sentence is an opportunity for art; every moment a little snow globe snapshot of a life. She never seems to use the cliched phrases that can so often be found scattered around even the best books. One of my favorites is: “About half an hour later, holding a spoon dolloped with wax, Leila sat in her usual spot on the roof, her legs dangling over the edge like a pair of drop earrings.”

There are also some choice lessons to learn in this book – some develop silently over the course of the plot and some are taught to us by characters in small monologues. Three of the ones I’ve stowed away for a wiser, future me:

“Grief is a swallow. One day you wake up and you think it’s gone, but it’s only migrated to some other place, warming its feathers. Sooner or later, it will return and perch in your heart again.”

“Leila did not think one could expect to have more than five friends. Just one was a stroke of luck. If you were blessed, then two or three, and if you were born under a sky filled with the brightest stars, then a quintet – more than enough for a lifetime. It wasn’t wise to hunt for more, lest in doing so you jeopardize those you counted on.”

“People always told her to fight depression. But I have a feeling that as soon as we see something as our enemy, we make it stronger. Like a boomerang. You hurl it away, it comes back and hits you with equal force. Maybe what you need is to befriend your depression.”

As the reader, I (and so many others) have lost friends before, and in traumatic ways. Sometimes reading a book can provide you with more information about a person than a real-life friendship. And so, for a short while, you feel like you really know them. Like they’re real. So when I finished this book, I truly felt like I had made a new friend, and then lost her. It hit me in the heart-bone, and I can’t see myself forgetting Tequila Leila, or the things she has taught me, any time soon.


This book has been out for a while – so have you read it? How did it make you feel, and did it make you realise anything about yourself?

Let me know below!

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