Review: Elif Shafak’s “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World”

Although the incident in many ways is no surprise, the birth of the main character in Elif Shafak’s latest novel (short-listed for this year’s Booker Award) provides a telling context for Turkey’s treatment of women—not just state-sanctioned abuse but that of husbands and what they believe they can do to their wives. That makes the event border on hopeless. Within minutes after Binnaz gives birth to Leila (who will become the main character), the baby is given to Suzan, their husband’s infertile first wife. Binnaz, as you might suspect, never really recovers from this (she is the one who breast-feeds Leila), and is quickly regarded as imbalanced. What woman would act otherwise: breast-feeding her child and then, when finished, immediately handing it to another woman? If women have no rights within their families, what rights do they have outside?

Elif Shafak would not be welcomed should she decide to return to Turkey, the country of her birth. Although her early novels have been more widely appreciated in Turkey than the ones written by some of her male peers, say Orhan Pamuk, those days have become compromised by the fact that so many journalists in the country are in prison, and Shafak is also an outspoken journalist. These reasons may also be why 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was written in English and not in Turkish. The country’s murderous president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, holds Byzantine attitudes about women. Shafak’s novel—mostly about women who are undesirables (prostitutes, transsexuals)—is also set in the seamy parts of Istanbul, the areas tourists rarely visit.

And the title? That’s where this clever novel begins: Leila “was still part of this world, and there was still life inside her, so how could she be gone? How could she be no more, as though she were a dream that fades at the first hint of daylight? Only a few hours ago she was singing, smoking, swearing, thinking…well, even now she was thinking. It was remarkable that her mind was working at full tilt—though who knew for how long. She wished she could go back and tell everyone that the dead did not die instantly, that they could, in fact, continue to reflect on things, including their own demise.” These thoughts flow through her “mind” just after she has been brutally murdered and thrown into a trashcan. Thus, true to the beliefs of many people, just as you die, you have a flashback of your entire life: in this case, lasting 10 minutes and 38 seconds.

The first minute/chapter not only records her death but also her birth, when she is taken away from her biological mother. Although the second minute moves to 1953, when Leila is six, her confusion about her parentage begins because Auntie (Binnaz) tells her that she is her real mother. The child is expected to keep this a secret. The next two minutes—in addition to describing the first of several friendships she makes in her life—describe her rape by her uncle, plus the later phase of her life when she works in a brothel in Istanbul. It’s 1967 and she’s long fled Van, in eastern Turkey, where she lived as a child, for Istanbul. Slowly, Shafak introduces other characters who will be her support system and telling remarks about Turks during this era, including one brief example of a woman who acquired condoms for her husband (after being told that she will not get pregnant if he uses them) swallowed them when he refused to use them. If their original intent is thwarted, surely swallowing them will work just as well. One hardly knows whether to laugh or cry at the woman’s ignorance—plus her fertility, permitting her husband to continue to control her life.

In the ensuing minutes Leila’s other friends’ lives are described, one after the other introducing the issues that hamper women’s lives in a backward-looking society. They’re a colorful group of characters (four women and one man), largely suffering from masculine abuse. Leila has a short-lived marriage, but her husband, a student/communist, is killed in a protest. After the 10 minutes, the chapters count down 10 seconds at a time, and turning the page you begin to wonder what can happen next in this very inventive story, because you’ve only read half of it.

When the time is up—when Leila’s brain has closed down—the second half shifts to the attempts by Leila’s five friends to give her a decent funeral because she’s been buried in a pauper’s graveyard. I had a little trouble with this part of the story because of what seemed like plot hijinks. The chapters begin in the morgue, with her friends outside, trying to determine what they can do because they cannot be given her body since they are not biological relations (and her husband is deceased). I thought the freshness of the first half of the novel was given over to the Keystone Cop activities of her friends, though their sad—but colorful—lives are etched memorably.

Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is a bold step forward by Turkey’s most significant woman writer. Yes, an editor needed to proofread the text carefully and fix a fair number of language issues, but writing a novel in English instead of Turkish had to be a challenge for this major writer. English makes sense, since most of her readers will be outside of her country of birth. That invisible editor also needed to flag several red herrings that punctuate the text, but editors at publishing houses these days rarely edit. What do they do? They “acquire” books. After acquiring a title, you would think that they would want that writer to appear in her best light. But I digress.

Elif Shafak is enormously gifted. No question about that. Give yourself the pleasure of reading 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. 

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World
Elif Shafak, 



Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = Twitter @LarsonChuck.