Friday 18 October 2019

10 Minutes 38 seconds in This Strange World: Female friendship, flashbacks, and misogyny

Fiction: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Elif Shafak

Viking, hardback, 320 pages, €17

Liminal state: Shafak's latest novel lacks tension
Liminal state: Shafak's latest novel lacks tension
10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Joanne Hayden

There's a map of Istanbul at the beginning of Elif Shafak's new novel, a whimsical illustration of the city from a height. At the edge, a seagull is poised in flight, hovering over the Bosphorus and clusters of indistinct buildings, like the reader about to glide down.

Turkish by birth, Shafak has lived all over the world and though her novels are set in different places, Istanbul often features as a backdrop. In 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, she is affectionate but ambivalent about the city, which is called "an illusion. A magician's trick gone wrong". There are, she writes, "multiple Istanbuls - struggling, competing, clashing, each perceiving that, in the end, only one could survive."

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The most widely read female writer in Turkey, Shafak is also a political commentator and an outspoken critic of the Turkish state. In 2006, she was prosecuted for "insulting Turkishness" in her novel The Bastard of Istanbul. References by her characters to the Armenian genocide under the Ottoman Empire were used as "evidence" against her.

Thematically, her latest novel echoes her previous work, exploring female friendship, misogyny and the tension between secularism and faith. In many ways, particularly its incorporation of magic realism, her style is similar to Chilean author Isabel Allende's.

In the first half of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, Leila, who has just been murdered, looks back on her life. Memories of her unhappy early years - a warped, secretive family, sexual abuse by her uncle, running away to Istanbul and her entrapment in prostitution - are interwoven with memories of how she met her five best friends. She hopes that these friends will find her body and give her a proper burial.

In the second half, the five come together to try and do exactly this. The omniscient narrative voice that Shafak employs, temporarily abandons Leila as her friends track her body to the Cemetery of the Companionless on the outskirts of the city, determined to dig her up.

The novel's fragmentary structure reflects the haphazard nature of memory and the central conceit of Leila's consciousness outlasting her body for even longer than the title suggests. Unfortunately though, the movement between past and present is choppy and disparate events are often forced together.

The flashbacks to Leila's childhood are the strongest and most immersive parts of the book. Immediately after giving birth, Leila's mother is told that the baby will be taken from her and raised by her husband's first wife. It's an indelible depiction of cruelty and powerlessness and, like the abuse that begins when Leila is six, as shocking as it should be.

Not all of the flashbacks are grim. On the roof of her childhood home in a town in eastern Anatolia, Leila eats homemade lemon and sugar wax. Downstairs, neighbourhood women are using the same concoction on their legs. Evocative scenes like this are played out against the faltering sanity of Leila's birth mother and the hypocrisy of her father, an increasingly religious tailor who makes "stylish, silky creations that he would never allow his own family to wear".

There's a whole novel in these sections alone - they are where the real story lies - but they are consistently cut short to introduce characters from Leila's later life. Each of her five friends is given a backstory, a vaguely ridiculous name - Nostalgia Nalan, Zaynab122, Hollywood Humeyra - and defined in broad strokes: one of them fears she will be the victim of an honour killing, one is a transsexual, one a little person. They're set up as a colourful bunch of misfits but are more like vehicles for experiences than fully formed individuals.

The main problem though is the overall lack of tension. From the beginning, the stakes are too low and as the friends set out to disinter Leila's body, the novel starts to resemble a screwball comedy or farce. It's a strange note to strike and sits uneasily alongside other aspects of the story, such as Leila being sold to a brothel as a teenager and forced to have sex with 10 to 15 men each day, the true impact of which is never really explored.

Shafak is good at writing sense details - a man drinking a shot of pickled cucumber juice, a breeze bringing in the smell of honeysuckle, jasmine and fried food - but linguistically she does little to capture her protagonist's liminal state. Leila is preternaturally coherent and - despite the fact that she has just been murdered - nostalgic rather than angry, shocked or traumatised. And while Istanbul is a vibrant presence, full of contradictions, the city can seem more authentic than some of the characters.

Elsewhere in her fiction, Shafak has shone a light on important contemporary issues but, in spite of some fine moments, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World ultimately doesn't cohere.

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