Monday, 1 November 2021

Heavy themes, light touch

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World "Her name was Leila. Tequila Leila, as she was known to her friends and her clients." Elif Shafak's 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is the story of Leila and the five friends who loved her.

The story is in two parts: part one The Mind, part two The Body. In The Mind, we discover the events in Leila's life that led to her leaving home and becoming a sex worker in Istanbul. It's narrated in flashback during the brief time between her heart stopping beating and her brain ceasing to function; the 10 minutes 38 seconds of the title. I don't want to give too much away. Suffice it to say that Leila and her mother, being female, have little control over their lives. There's a particularly disturbing scene that takes place when Leila is six, but in spite of the dark subject matter it's not a bleak tale because Leila is a fighter.

When Leila's brain ceases to function the second part of the story begins. It follows the exploits of her five friends in the aftermath of her death as they attempt to reclaim Leila's body. The farce and humour effectively lighten the tone, and reminded me of two books I read long before sharing reviews on the internet was a thing. The first was an episode in David Niven's Bring on the Empty Horses, a very funny description of the funeral of director Edmund Goulding. The second was a book by Michael Curtin called The League Against Christmas. Both similarly very funny and involve a group of odd characters.

Shafak's use of taste and smell to evoke memories is clever, and some of her descriptions are very evocative. For instance, in the throes of death Leila hears "Somewhere in the semi-darkness a dog was barking, more out of a sense of duty than excitement", or during a night scene in a cemetery, "darkness was less an absence of light than a presence of its own–a living, breathing entity. It followed them like a curious creature".

Shafak has a light touch even tho' the book deals with some heavy themes: religion, hypocrisy, abuse, feminism and death. Overall it reads like a fable or fairy story, and this is borne out in a note to the reader at the end: "Many things in this book are true and everything is fiction". It might just as well have begun with once upon a time.

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