10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World review: Arresting premise, hobbled potential in Elif Shafak's latest 

  • What if, after the moment of death, the human mind continues to work for a few precious minutes?

  • And so is laid out, over 10 minutes and 38 seconds, the life of murder victim Tequila Leila

  • In her final moments, with her brain buzzing with life, she drifts through some of the most significant memories of her life

Editor's note: Up to 14 October, when the Man Booker Prize 2019 winner will be announced, Firstpost will be reviewing the five books on the shortlist. This is your guide to the Booker contenders.

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Elif Shafak's 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World has an arresting premise, one which makes you stop in your tracks and do a double-take: "What if, after the moment of death, the human mind continues to work for a few precious minutes?"

And so is laid out, over 10 minutes and 38 seconds, the life of Tequila Leila — murdered, her body disposed of in a dumpster; but while her heart comes to a halt, her mind lingers. In her "final moments", with her brain buzzing with life, she drifts through some of the most significant memories of her journey to this point — a haunting childhood in Van, moving to Istanbul as a young woman, navigating the world of prostitution, finding friendship, and losing love, in the most unexpected of places.

Shafak jumps right into the surreal with a well-crafted prologue as Leila realises what is happening to and around her now "dead" body. Like her, the reader too begins to slowly grasp and put together the pieces of who she was, and what might have conspired in her life that she finds herself here today. Alas, these captivating opening few pages are the best we ever come to know Leila or get a sense of her own voice as a well-grounded character.

Each minute takes Leila to a specific time in her life as she remembers the sights and the smells, the love and the lies, her friends and family, and everything in between. But the novelty wears off quickly. Every now and then Shafak's brilliance with words and storytelling shines through, but the book remains riddled with clichés and familiar tropes.

The book works toward tackling a lot of themes, from abuse against women to superstition, historical events, immigration and friendship, but fails to fully sink its teeth into any. Each strand encourages a desire for further investigation, but the answers almost always come up short or to an uninspired conclusion. (Although the second part of the book is a different story — more on that in a bit.)

 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World review: Arresting premise, hobbled potential in Elif Shafaks latest 

Elif Shafak's 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

Without divulging too much of the plot, the first half of the book primarily revolves around Leila's (mostly linear) journey from childhood to a woman in her 40s, her abusive (and abused) family members, and introduces the reader to five of her closest friends. The reader also meets a few other colorful characters like that of the woman (Bitter Ma) who runs the brothel Leila works for in Istanbul and the idealistic man (Ali) she falls in love with. This cast of characters seems inventive and well-realised when they are introduced, but if one starts to dig in a little, most of them present themselves as hollow caricatures. This is most noticeable in the characters of the protagonist's abusive uncle and authoritative father, the overly stereotypical Leftist student rebel Ali, as well as Leila's friends, who are given wildly different and singular personalities (which, in small doses, come across as endearing, but when put together, is anything but). And all this over the course of the book can be painfully jarring.

It is difficult to get a sense of Leila's own personality as the story unfolds. Many-a-times, the choices she makes — be it rebelling against her family or leaving for Istanbul — come across as those of a completely different (even if reasonable) individual, and not the person described to us in the previous pages. The intent might have to been to dramatise certain parts or time jumps, but the effect is one of in-cohesion. The historical events peppered across the book — with Leila bearing witness to them through the television and newspapers — mostly serve as little more than timestamps. In a few instances, however, she witnesses them firsthand (the NATO aircraft carrier dropping anchor, the opening of Bosphorus Bridge and student protests) and these not only serve to push the plot forward but also comprise some of the more memorable parts of the book.

The second part of the novel is a different story altogether. Driven primarily by Leila's five friends, who are in a race against time to give her a respectable funeral, the story's familiar but unrealised characters become compelling and showcase depth. It is ironic how, even as the plot gets more and more absurd and unrealistic, the more it finds a firm footing. Issues remain; for example, the constant comment on religion and superstition becomes tiresome, like a joke told one too many times, but Shafak's writing feels more free-flowing and confident. Istanbul, which has at times been described in the most generic terms and could easily be a stand-in for any other megapolis, also comes to life here — a character in its own right.

In a book driven by Murphy's Law, the change in dynamics offers much more than the predictable tales of the first half. Here, the author brilliantly navigates difficult waters, not an easy feat as one might recall from Chad Harbach's ending for The Art of Fielding.

As I finished the book, I could not help but feel it was very much written for a Western audience. Shafak (who is Turkish-British), with her writing and choice of story elements, offers limited inspiration to an audience (the Middle East and South Asia) which is perhaps all too familiar with daily religious rituals and orthodox households still steeped in ancient traditions, the concepts of pride and shame. To a Westen reader, on the other hand, each sentence in the book, with Shafak's constant barrage of stereotypical Turkish lives in the first half, might seem like an exotic retelling of a place out of time, and in turn, might serve as a exceptionally different reading experience, perhaps a much richer one.

Shafak is undoubtedly a gifted writer, and the reader is reminded of this every few pages. Unfortunately, what begins as a gripping premise with much potential, soon breaks down, tripping over its own traps of clichés and predictability.

Updated Date: Oct 10, 2019 09:31:33 IST