Though she’s certainly well-regarded on these shores, your everyday reader may not know that Elif Shafak is one of the most important writers in the world. The most widely read female writer in Turkey, she has done many things in her previous 10 novels, but perhaps most significantly she has brought the plight of women in Turkey and beyond to a global scale. Particularly with regards to life in Istanbul, so long the symbolic border between the “East” and the “West,” the British-Turkish Shafak’s incisive, compassionate writing has captivated many with its ingenuity and relatability.

Her 11th novel, the Booker Prize shortlisted 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, is no different. Perhaps connectivity is a better term than relatability for what Shafak does here, a topic that Shafak herself has spoken about. Fiction can connect us in ways that other mediums cannot, it puts us into the heads and thoughts that are outwardly so different than ourselves. 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World puts us into the mind of Tequila Leila, who we meet as she dies in a dumpster. The title refers to the amount of time the mind continues to function after the physical body dies, and so Tequila Leila uses that time to take us back through her life just as she fades out of it.

Writing in an identity other than one’s own is a hot topic in the literary world, particularly following American Dirt. Shafak often writes outside of her own lived experiences, but the key here is not only her compassion of her writing but also the depth of her research. In between Leila’s flashbacks, Shafak tells the stories of five of Leila’s closest friends: Sinan, Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab and Humeyra. These friends have wildly different backgrounds, but what they share allows Shafak to show Istanbul to be a global city in a different way than how we see it portrayed in films and other books. It is a place where women from all over the region and the world go to escape, transform and be who they were meant to be. But it is also a city with a vast underworld where these women can be trapped and exploited.

Shafak’s boldness expands beyond identity as well. She doesn’t force the book to stay within the infinite amount of flashback and side story that she could fit into the titular snippet of time. Instead, she allows that time to come to an end and follows the story onward, which not only keeps the plot interesting but allows for more levity and less melancholy. It also allows the story to spread its wings in its final section, wings that allow it to land at an incredibly powerful, moving ending.

Leila’s story is devastating and filled with trauma after trauma. In fact, what seems to be the worst trauma, the fact that she is literally dying in a dumpster as she tells her story, turns out to be less horrible than many of the circumstances she and her friends faced in life. Shafak pulls no punches when describing these traumas, but nimbly avoids wallowing in the suffering. Much of the book moves like a thriller, but sometimes a feeling or circumstance will linger and catch up to the reader at another, later moment. There is a Dickensian quality to the layers that Shafak employs here, but unlike Dickens her cities are diverse, and goodness is a moving target.

Elif Shafak is so important of a writer and the contents of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World such a clarion call that it almost feels certain it would be an exciting, compelling read. It’s somehow a joyful book despite having some of the more horrifying descriptions of violence this reader has ever endured. It’s somehow a mystery even though we think we know how it ends at the beginning. And it’s somehow the story of thousands, even millions of women, while spending most of its time in the head of one.

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