“An uneasy collision” – 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

In some senses, the short review of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World would be: George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo by way of Jim Crace’s Being Dead. Lincoln in the Bardo because we’re in the realm of the recently dead, and there’s a creepy graveyard at one point; Being Dead because the the 10 minutes and 38 seconds of the title refers to the last 10 minutes and 38 seconds of a sex worker known as Tequila Leila’s life. But such a short review is crude and reductive even by my typical standards.

We first meet Leila

“somewhere on the outskirts of Istanbul, across from a dark, damp football field, inside a metal rubbish bin with rusting handles and flaking paint.”

She’s been murdered. She is, in fact, the fifth sex worker to have been murdered in the last few weeks. The local media doesn’t care. Similarly, the local police force isn’t busting a gut to get to the bottom of the mystery. Leila is just a sex worker. Over the course of the first half of the book, as the minutes and the seconds count up, we are told the story of Leila’s life (raised in a house of secrets – her father gives her as a bay to his first wife, rather than the wife who actually gave birth to her, who is forever after known as auntie – Leila seems to naturally assume a position of rebellion and this informs much of her early life, even after she runs away and is taken in first by one brothel and then by another). Each minute is accompanied by a series of smells – something that reminds her of the time we are about to learn more of – from the lemon and sugar of her early childhood to “the taste of chocolate bonbons with surprise fillings inside – caramel, cherry paste, hazelnut praline” that reminds her of her marriage to a young activist known as D/Ali.

And then we pass the mid-point of the book and the title steps aside to allow for Leila’s friends to assume the centre stage. Dismissively buried, like a great many ne’er-do-wells and unfortunate sorts in the Cemetery of the Companionless, her friends – Nalan, Sinan, Jameelah, Zaynab and Humeyra (who we are introduced to, Arabian Nights-like, in the first half of the book – hatch a plan to save her soul and thus we find ourselves propelled on a midnight dash through a curious hinterland of police and criminals in order to retrieve Leila’s body. All of which is fine (in a sort of Pedro Almodovar sort of way) but the title being the title and us being the literal sorts we are, we feel it would have been neater to have that countdown run the duration of the novel – the last fleeting seconds being used to boost the dramatic effect of will they / won’t they save her? Instead, the novel’s structure feels as if it lollops along at times, from one set piece to another – and dramatic, edgy scenes (such as one involving the murderer and his driver) leave you feeling somewhat underwhelmed, or at best puzzling to work out how it all fits together (and perhaps the point is that it doesn’t quite all hang together – what in life does? – and maybe that irresolution is part of the point of the book).

Undoubtedly 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World has important things to say about the plight of Turkish sex workers. It’s well written and substantial – in the way that, say, Rushdie’s novels are well written and substantial – but, for all that, and certainly in the latter stages of the book, there is an uneasy collision between the darkness of the subject matter and the occasionally frivolous way in which Leila’s friends go about their business. It might be as simple as the novel just not working, entirely, for this particular reader.

Any Cop?: One of those books that I didn’t find myself hurrying back to, for whatever that is worth.

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