10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak
Published by Viking, 2019
My rating: ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Reading this novel was an odd experience, in that I flipped between immensely enjoying it and finding it incredibly frustrating on multiple occasions. Put simply, it’s full of excellent themes, ideas, and characters, but the execution is almost uniformly clumsy, leaving me with the distinct impression that it’s a brilliant book trapped inside a good one.
The story is presented largely in two parts. In the first, Leila has just been murdered, and though her body has already shut down, her brain has precisely 10 minutes and 38 seconds of activity left, during which time she is able to revisit key memories from throughout her lifetime. At first, though a striking concept, this proved somewhat tedious. Not only do we have the main character recounting her own birth (a very specific pet peeve of mine), but these early scenes are described in excruciating, unnecessary detail, the author’s push for ‘beautiful’ writing awkwardly apparent. Once the narrative finds its focus, however, things really start to improve.
The bulk of Leila’s memories centre around why she became estranged from her birth family, and how she came to meet each of her five closest friends, who, like her, are all societal outcasts. In the novel’s second half, the focus shifts to these five friends as they attempt to claim Leila’s body for burial. Since none of them are blood relatives, they are refused, with Leila’s body destined for the Cemetery of the Companionless instead. As much as I loved Shafak’s commentary on the injustice of this, and her exploration of the power of found family, this section was also not without its flaws. Firstly, though each character is interesting in their own right, the group feels ragtag to the point of caricature, and prior to Leila’s death, we see little to no interaction between them as a combined group. This makes it hard to buy them as a united front straight away. Secondly, their attempts to reclaim Leila’s body and give her a proper funeral – though compellingly readable and full of heartfelt intention – err dangerously close to farce, with the latter section of the book reading strangely like a slapstick buddy flick at times.
That said, there are consistently moments of excellence throughout. I love the way the group navigate the diversity of religious and political beliefs amongst them. There’s a particularly brilliant exchange between a devout believer and a non-believing transgender character. The former puts little stock into what happens to Leila’s body, believing the importance lies in setting her soul free, while the latter, who has had to fight her whole life to craft the body she desires, feels quite the opposite. It’s in these quieter, nuanced explorations of difference, tolerance, and understanding that the book really shines.
I’m definitely glad I read this, as even when certain elements were exaggerated to the point of frustration, I remained invested in the overall narrative throughout. That has to speak for something. If Shafak’s style didn’t wholly work for me, I certainly admired the warmth, wisdom, and purpose behind her words.
You can pick up a copy of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World from Book Depository by clicking here.