169. 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is one of my favourite authors to read. I’ve read so many of her books, but when it came to picking up 10 minutes, 38 seconds in this Strange World, it took me a hot minute to get it!

Puns apart, over the years I’ve seen how Elif Shafak’s work has been highly criticised by many readers for a number of reasons that I won’t rehash here. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but sometimes I feel the opinion doesn’t stem from sheer disconnect from the story, but disconnect towards the author or the “hype” the books receive.

The Forty Rules of Love, was her first book that I read back in 2011. I liked it, though at the time I had different ideas of “books that I loved”. I feel like her other books are phenomenally better. Take The Bastard of Istanbul, Three Daughter of Eve, The Flea Palace, Honor, or even The Architect’s Apprentice. They’re all different in terms of storyline, characters, with one common theme: Istanbul and the dazzling varieties of Istanbulites.

And 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in this Strange World is no exception!

“She was a foreigner and, like all foreigners, she carried with her the shadow of an elsewhere.”

This story captures a unique group of misfits, outcasts, but loyal friends who are joined for their collective love for Leyla. Tequila Leila as she likes to be called. The novel begins with Tequila Leila dead, but her brain still functioning for 10 minutes. As each minute passes by, she remembers a significant event of her past life connected to the taste or smell of a particular food.

“Just because you think it’s safe here, it doesn’t mean this is the right place for you… sometimes where you feel most safe is where you least belong”

With each chapter, we understand who Leyla was before she became Tequila Leila. How her unusual family, strict rules, two mothers, and a pervert uncle forced her to runaway to Istanbul. After a series of bad events, she becomes a sex worker. There she goes on to meet her loyal tribe, who each come with a tragic/sad past that eventually made them find their way to Istanbul as well.

“Perhaps nothing was worth worrying about in a city where everything was constantly shifting and dissolving, and the only thing they could ever rely on was this moment in time, which was already half gone.”

I was apprehensive at first, about this story. But as soon as I began, I was hooked. I wanted to know what led Leyla to make the decisions she made, her unique friends that included a Trans Woman, a religious dwarf woman, a childhood friend who loves her dearly, an African lady who was trafficked to Istanbul, and a singer who can drive you nuts with her voice.

“… a human race capable of making atomic bombs and building artificial intelligence, but still uncomfortable with their own mortality and unable to sort out what to do with their dead. How pathetic it was to try to relegate death to the periphery of life when death was at the centre of everything.”

Nostalgia Nalan, Zaynab122, Sabotage Sinan, Jameelah and  Hollywood Humeyra, respectively, form the family that Leila never had. Together, the battle the chaos that is Istanbul against some historical events including the arrival of a NATO convoy, the protest by the leftist activists, and more. But most importantly, they go through all the hardships and violence people who don’t fit society’s labels are presented with.

“Kader ’, people called it – ‘destiny’ – and said no more, because people always gave simple names to the complex things that frightened them.”

What Elif Shafak accomplished with 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World, is to show the world the harsh realities and conditions of immigrant workers, trans community, and sex workers face in Istanbul. She brought together a most unusual collection of characters that will grab your attention till the end, and have you rooting for them, even though you know one of them is no more.

“Getting through life as unscathed as possible depended to a large extent on two fundamental principles: knowing the right time to arrive and knowing the right time to leave.”

10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World is one of those rare, unlikely novels that give you a new perspective on communities you may not have otherwise been acquainted with. But truly, the most beautiful part of this book is the implicit love letter to Istanbul, by a lover who can’t go without it but has conflicts with it too.

“To the women of Istanbul, and the city of Istanbul, which is, and has always been, a she-city”

This is why I love Elif Shafak’s books. She brings you stories that not many people would write, originating from a country that is an amalgam of different shades, stories, ideologies and voices. And further cements my desire to see the city of Istanbul for myself.

I do understand, however, that Shafak’s writing usually does go awry when talking about Islam, Turkish culture, and her opinions on it. So take it as the fictional novel it is, with the author’s imagination(and real life stories) moving forward her pen, and allow her the room for expression as we do many authors of the West, without a second thought.

Onto the basics:

  1. Rating: 4.0/5.0
  2. Favourite Quote: “Grief is a swallow,’ he said. ‘One day you wake up and you think it’s gone, but it’s only migrated to some other place, warming its feathers. Sooner or later, it will return and perch in your heart again.”
  3. Reader level: fairly easy.
  4. Should you read it: a good fiction read to ease your mind away from the present? Totally!
  5. Would I read it again: I don’t think so. More of a one-time read for me.

Till next time,



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