10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak | Book Review

“The possibility of an immediate and wholesale decimation of civilization was not half as frightening as the simple realization that our individual passing had no impact on the order of things, and life would go on just the same with or without us.”

“We must do what we can to mend our lives, we owe that to ourselves – but we need to be careful not to break others while achieving that.”

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is one of these books that you want to give everyone around you as a gift. This tale is very precious, not only because of its diverse topicality, but also due to the lesson of profound empathy. The characters in this novel moved me deeply and the writing is somehow spiritual, its gentleness touches something deep in my soul.

The tale of Leila, the main protagonist of the book, celebrates the diversity of life in its complexity and works like a calming balm for my own emotions.

The rich language full of the references to scents, colours evokes all sorts of memories. It reminds me about my mum’s favourite perfume called Poeme … flowery, rich, gentle and overwhelming at times, Eastern and Western at the same time. This scent, Poeme, is a huge part of my childhood. It brings memories of my homeland in Eastern Europe but also memories of Leila.

I always devour all the books by Elif Shafak. I deeply connect with the way she tells the stories of people from the peripheries of the society and how she gives the voice to the voiceless.

Reading 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World made my heart full and my soul chuffed. I find Elif’s writing emotionally sensitive and compassionate. It does connect with me at a deeper level and it is a tool for me to exit this current world of mine and to join Leila on the journey into her (story)land. In my view, it is a book to heal one’s soul.

The inspiration for 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was a series of scientific research where the doctors observed a persistent brain activity for a few minutes after patients’ heart stops beating. What happens to a human brain during this time became a basis for the story of Leila.

We know from the first sentences that the main character, Leila, is dead. At the time of her death, she is in her 40s and has worked as a prostitute in Istanbul. We find out at the very beginning of the book that Leila was brutally murdered, and her body was dumped in the garbage bin as a final insult to her humanity.

Although Leila’s heart stopped beating, her brain is still working. As Leila remembers the important moments from her life during these few minutes, we take on a journey through her life and also through the story of her homeland, Turkey. As we travel with Leila, we listen to the stories told through the eyes of the outsiders, people from the peripheries of the society including Leila herself and her ‘water family’ consisting of her friends.

The tale of Leila and her friends is life-affirming. It celebrates the diversity; inclusion and it places a special value on friendships, solidarity and empathy reflected in the emphasis on the shared values that people hold rather than on the differences they might have.

One of the central ideas in this book is the Cemetery of the Companionless which is a real place based in the outskirts of Istanbul, “the loneliest graveyard in Istanbul. The people buried there are the outsiders, outcasts, rejected by the society. It is a burial place for abandoned babies, prostitutes, people who died of AIDS in the 80s and 90s of the 20th century, people from LGBTQ community, Syrian and Afghan refugees who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea while trying to reach Europe.

In the Cemetery of the Companionless there are no names on the graves, just numbers. The individuals with names and own stories have been turned into numbers; they have been de-humanised. 

What 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World does is an attempt to re-humanise the numbers; Leila’s story brings back the humanity to the ones whose lives have been forgotten and whose names have been turned into numbers. 

“Every now and then, a boat full of asylum seekers capsized in these waters. Their bodies were pulled from the sea and placed side by side, journalists gathering around to write their reports. Then the bodies were loaded into refrigerated vans designed to carry ice cream and frozen fish and driven to a special graveyard – the Cemetery of the Companionless. Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis, Somalis, Eritreans, Sundaneses, Nigerians, Libyans, Iranians, Pakistanis – they were buried so far from here they were born, laid to rest haphazardly wherever space was available. Around them, on all sides, were Turkish citizens who, though neither asylum seekers nor undocumented migrants, had, in all likelihood, felt equally unwelcome in their own homeland. (…) there was a burial ground (…) – one of a kind. It was reserved for three types of dead: the unwanted, the unworthy and the unidentified.

Shafak E (2019) p. 255

The story of Leila is also a story of heavy silences, social and cultural taboos such as the position of women in the patriarchal society, the position of newcomers, immigrants and outcasts in their newly found home.

The words below depict the feelings that Leila had when she first met Jameelah, one of her friends, a refugee from Somalia:

 “She was a foreigner, and, like all foreigners, she carried with her the shadow of an elsewhere. (…) she saw the way she hugged her rucksack against her chest, as if expecting to be kicked out of this place, if not of this country, at any second, and recognised in her manner a familiar loneliness, a forlornness. She had the odd feeling that she might as well be staring at her own reflection.”

Shafak E (2019) pp. 116 – 117

There is also the depiction of these conflicting emotions felt by many people who left their country and they come back to the countries of birth at a later stage in life:

Until she met him (d/Ali) Leila had never known anyone who had set up house in so many places and yet did not feel quite at home anywhere. (…) He was used to feeling like an outsider in Germany, but until he started living in Istanbul, he had never thought he would feel the same way in Turkey, if not even more so.”

Shafak E (2019) p. 141

Religion is also portrayed in a nuanced manner, showing how people from the same community might have different views on the same set of beliefs. The religious values that Leila’s father uphold became far more restrictive because of his fear of God.  On the other hand, Zaynabi22’s view on the religion could not be more different:

“Zaynabi22 nodded as a cloak of sadness engulfed her. Religion for her had always been a source of hope, resilience and love – a lift that carried her up from the basement of darkness into spiritual light. It pained her that the same lift could just as easily take others all the way down. The teachings that warmed her heart and brought her close to all humanity, regardless of creed, colour or nationality, could be interpreted in such a way that they divided, confused and separated human beings, sowing seeds of enmity and bloodshed.

Shafak E (2019) p. 275

We do connect with the novel in our own way. The reader brings his own experiences, baggage to the storyland which impacts the way the story is understood, interpreted, felt and lived. Therefore, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World will mean very different things to different people. It will awake very different emotions.

For me, it is a beautiful and compelling story of people from underprivileged backgrounds like Leila and immigrants, like some of Leila’s friends, often whose lives are constrained by their socio-economic background and by an accident of birth.

The themes of the journey, both for human beings but also for objects, an enchanting descriptions to “the city of scars”- Istanbul, an exploration of empathy and diversity of opinion within the same group, community are movingly told addressing all the nuances for a better understanding of the world we live in.

The story of Leila is full of sadness, profoundly moving but yet full of hope.

I would recommend 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak to everyone who is interested in entering the world of the other” for some time, laying aside the views and values one holds without bias and prejudice and to see how different this world might look like through the eyes of another human being with different values and life experiences.

Other books by Elif Shafak that I would highly recommend include: The Bastard of Istanbul , The Architect’s Apprentice ,and Three Daughters of Eve

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      1. I am glad you enjoyed this book. 🙂 There are some very good TED Talks she did in the past that are worth watching / listening to. Over the summer she has published non-fiction book, more like an essay, titled “How to Stay Sane in an Age of Division” – it is also worth reading if you can get a copy in France. In relation to Turkish authors, I also very much like Orhan Pamuk and his “Strangeness in My Mind” as well as “Snow” and “Black Notebook” are my favourite ones by him.

  1. Loved the book. I was slightly reluctant to read it because I had heard alot of mixed reviews about the book. But I found it extremely moving and it touched my heart. A must read.

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I am glad you enjoyed this book. I do very much like it. It really did resonate with my deeply but i know what you mean about mixed reviews. If I remember correctly there is a very good review of this book in The Guardian (you can search for it on their website). In a similar vein, I also love books by Orhan Pamuk, especially Snow which somehow bears some resemblance to Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World!

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