Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

4.5 stars

THE PLOT: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds by Elif Shafak is a novel which starts with the death of a prostitute. Leila is sitting in an industrial trashcan in Istanbul. Her life has ended but her mind is still at work. Each chapter recounts a minute of her thoughts and memories, and we learn how she ended up working Istanbul’s streets. Often her memories are connected with her five friends, each an outsider and misfit in mainstream society. Slowly we learn her friends’ stories as they attempt to give her a proper funeral.

RATING: This is a four-and-a-half-star stunner. I love Shafak’s writing style, which immediately endeared me to this novel and I’ll definitely search out her other work. The interesting structure creates a pacy plot as you’re desperate to find out how Leila died. Although some may find the concept gimmicky, I recently read about how neurons keep firing after death so I loved the premise. Most importantly, this novel has an important theme about belonging and stigma. Each of Leila’s friends exemplifies the theme and brings another dimension to the novel. There’s a lot of sorrow in this story, life is cruel and unfair, but it is also a tale of love and hope, friendship and acceptance.

GOOD BITS: My favourite part of this novel was the writing. It’s playful and descriptive, with apt similes and creative idioms, such as “home sour home”. The author loves a play on words, particularly when using Turkish or Greek to reinforce the meaning of an event in the story. She also uses taste and smell to connect Leila’s memories, which was very evocative. Finally, I enjoyed how the city of Istanbul became a character, as historical anecdotes and its spirit are captured through the text. In summary, I loved the way the story was told.

NOT SO GOOD BITS: I wish we’d had more sense of how the group of friends interacted with each other before Leila’s death. A snapshot of them all together (perhaps at dinner) would’ve helped endear them to me, making other plot points more poignant. Unfortunately, they became a symbol – and in some cases a bit of a stereotype -, rather than rounded characters who will stay in my heart forever. Although it would’ve slowed the pace, a stronger picture of their friendship in the middle would’ve helped me form a stronger connection to the characters. Note – There’s particularly one character I have in mind but I can’t say because it’s a massive spoiler!

OVERALL: I’d recommend this book to lovers of ‘Everything I Never Told You’ by Celeste Ng or ‘Burial Rites’ by Hannah Kent. The former has the same pacy sense of opening with a death and wanting to travel backwards to build up a picture of a life. The latter features a misunderstood woman who we slowly learn the roots of, as well as using the landscape and setting to bring out the themes of the novel. Overall, this book suited my tastes because it seemed to saddle literary and commercial; it has the pathos and main character of literary fiction, with the engaging plot of commercial women’s fiction. Definitely one to buy if you love becoming absorbed in a story.