It’s a source of great irony and outrage that the Turkish authorities have decided to investigate Elif Shafak for writing about sexual violence just as her latest novel, a profound, humanising narrative about the victims of sexual violence, is being published in Turkey and elsewhere. It starts with an explosive premise, as we dive into the mind of sex worker “Tequila Leila”, who is dying in a rubbish bin on the outskirts of Istanbul. As her brain begins to shut down, Leila, assuming the roles of digressive raconteur and her own biographer, goes back in time to trace the story of the little girl from the provinces who ends up as a two-column crime story in the city’s newspapers.
She recalled things she did not even know she was capable of remembering, things she had believed to be lost for ever. Time became fluid, a free flow of recollections seeping into one another, the past and the present inseparable.
Thus begins an extraordinary tale of a brutalised, broken but profoundly courageous woman who retains her humanity despite a world bent on crushing her at every turn. We see beautifully rendered, tender vignettes of her early life, as she remembers her birth and childhood in the house of well-to-do tailor Haroun, who has been waiting a long time for offspring from his two wives. As a free-spirited girl, Leila soon discovers that almost everything in life is either forbidden to her or predetermined by age‑old familial codes.
Early in the novel, having captured the minutiae of domestic and social life in the eastern province of Van, Shafak recounts a hair-raising scene when Leila is six, during a family picnic at a beachside hotel. It’s this harrowing incident, almost unbearable to witness, that turns out to be the pivot around which young Leila’s life turns. We are then hurled into the brutal realities of life in the city. “Istanbul was an illusion. A magician’s trick gone wrong.”
For more than half the book, the reader is guided by Leila’s vibrant but soon to be extinguished memory, each reminiscence sparked by a smell or taste. It’s a terrific device, taking us from the rubbish bin to a day in her childhood when she is banned by her pious father from playing with a hula hoop. We are also transported to the grand opening of the Bosphorus Bridge, which a grown-up Leila witnesses alongside a sea of proud Istanbulis, including the activist and artist who becomes her only true love and husband.
A picture of Leila’s life, as well as that of her despondent and downtrodden mother, emerges from this buzzing, chaotic narrative. After a series of debilitating miscarriages, Leila’s mother gives birth to a baby girl, only to be instantly deprived of her joy when her husband decrees that his first wife is to be the mother of this child, and she will be only an aunt, because “you can always have more babies”.
In her youth and middle years, Leila is subjected to unspeakable cruelties in the metropolis, and Shafak does something remarkable here. She infuses Leila’s personality with heart and soul and surrounds her with a set of “undesirables”, five friends whose characters are sketched with beauty and pain. By revealing layer upon layer of her interior life, the novel draws a magnificently nuanced portrait of its protagonist. The dreamy girl from Van who refuses to be silent even when murdered becomes the conscience of “this manic old city”.
Shafak takes a piercing, unflinching look at the trauma women’s minds and bodies are subjected to in a social system defined by patriarchal codes. It’s a brutal book, bleak and relentless in its portrayal of violence, heartbreak and grief, but ultimately life-affirming. Here, as in Shafak’s previous work, we find the good old-fashioned art of intricate storytelling, something I miss sometimes in modern fiction. The mad, exhilarating final section, in which Leila is a corpse being driven away from the “cemetery of the companionless” by her friends, is a testament to Shafak’s brilliance as a storyteller. People in Turkey and elsewhere should celebrate her work.
• Mirza Waheed’s latest novel is Tell Her Everything (Context). 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak is published by Penguin (RRP £14.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK p&p on all online orders over £15.
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