Tequila Leila, a prostitute from Istanbul, has been murdered and her body left in a dumpster. Though prostitution is legal in the city, she’s part of a class that is considered nothing. Her family has disowned her, but Leila has five friends who love her. And in the minutes just after death, her mind is working and remembering dear friends. During these 10 minutes and 38 seconds, in which a recent study supports the idea that, after death, the brain is still active for a period of time, Leila reflects upon a life of many difficulties, but one that has also brought her love and friendship.
Leila’s mind travels to the city of Van, where she was born in 1947, to the second wife of a tailor. Shafak describes her childhood and events that drive her to Istanbul to lead a life that has shamed her family. Friends are few, but the ones she makes, become her new family. They represent varied groups of misfits and lost souls and their stories are included in Leila’s reflections. Readers learn about specific times in her life through the 60s and 70s, leading up to her death in 1990.
Leila also recalls many historical events and political movements, some violent, in Turkey and Istanbul, a city that connects Europe and Asia, and one in which there are many opinions about religion, politics and government. Readers get a larger view of Istanbul during these times as world events occur.
When her body is discovered and sent to the city morgue, Leila’s friends must find a way to give her a proper burial, for she is otherwise destined to be sent to the Cemetery of the Companionless. It is in these final hours that the reader learns how far Leila’s friends will go to honor her.
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was longlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. The book is divided into three parts, The Mind, The Body and The Soul, although most of it is dedicated to The Mind. This is the strongest part of the story. The rest of the book takes on a more comedic tone and, in my opinion, doesn’t match the thoughtful and moving sections of the first part. I think it detracts from what is an otherwise excellent story. Still, I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to readers who like something different. I learned a lot about Turkey and Istanbul as it relates to Leila’s story and real events.
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