Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British activist and award-winning novelist who regularly speaks on women’s rights, minority rights and freedom of speech.
Her eleventh novel, ’10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World’ is about Leila, a Turkish sex worker, who is found dead in a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. In the 10 minutes and 38 seconds it takes for her mind to shut down, the reader is taken with her on a journey through her memories, from a little girl living in the countryside to the woman murdered on page one.
This is a heartbreaking portrayal of how misogyny and extreme religious views can conspire to crush a girl’s spirit.
While the story is fictitious, places and events mentioned are real. And it is completely plausible that Leila’s story could be reality for thousands of women.
Leila’s story is complex, powerful and moving. Her voice is strong even though she is technically dead for the entire novel. She refused to stay silent in death, in a world that refused to listen to her when alive.
This is one of those impeccably told stories that convinces you to care deeply for the protagonist. I was relieved when her close group of friends were introduced; friends who were also rejected by society, but had found the family they needed in each other.
Shafak expertly dives deep into the trauma women are subjected to mentally and physically in a social system defined by patriarchal codes. Codes that are very much a reality in Turkey and around the world.
Her honesty and willingness to speak out against these issues have not gone unnoticed by the Turkish government. In 2006, a court charged her with ‘insulting Turkishness’ for writing about the Armenian genocide (an event denied by the Turkish government), in her book ‘The Bastard of Istanbul’. The charges were eventually dropped due to lack of grounds, but in 2019 Elif Shafak was again placed under investigation for writing about child abuse and sexual violence in her novels. This oppression is due to an increasingly authoritarian government that denounces feminism and intellectualism, and has seen a rise in patriarchal values and homophobia.
Shafak has lived in London for the last decade and states that while her soul is in Istanbul she does not feel comfortable to return there.
I found the last few chapters of the book a little less polished than the rest of the story, with the characters of her friends not developed enough to take centre stage. It almost felt like two different stories were being stitched together. But the symbolism of their actions does still come through and brings home the message of solidarity in the face of oppression.
Rating: 4 out of 5. Moving, informative and a crucial read for everyone living in today’s world. This is the first novel I’ve read by Shafak and I’m eager to get stuck into more.