Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, by Elif Shafak

10 minutes and 38 seconds in this strange world elif shafak

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Categories: Literary Fiction, Contemporary, Historical Fiction


Leila is dead – but her brain still shows activity for another 10 minutes and 38 seconds; and in those moments after death, she remembers the tastes and smells that bring her back memories from her childhood and then eventually becoming a prostitute in Istanbul.

This is a book that had everything to become an instant favorite for me. It tells the story of Leila, who worked as a prostitute in Istanbul, but also of her five closest friends, all of which are part of minorities living in the margins of Istanbul, and each one will probably end up in the Cemetery of Companionless, a real cemetery in the outskirts of the city for those who are unclaimed or unwanted. I liked how much diversity in the characters and their personalities there was – I also liked how Leila was strong and kind, despite all the things she goes through.

I ended up having a rather lukewarm reaction to this book for a few reasons. First, I did not like the writing style much, it felt somehow disconnected emotionally from the characters, more a tell than show. It felt like it was a novel meant to be quotable, purposefully adding sentences that brought nothing to the story. Reading about all those highly traumatic things happening, I did not feel connected at all, which is quite something, considering how much happens in the novel.

Secondly, there were so many stories. There are six main characters, and although it’s Leila and her story that link the other five together, you still get a few chapters dedicated to each and every character, which… just made it a rather exhausting read. Every couple chapters you’d change to another character just as you started to care about the one that came before. And, I get it – Leila was awesome and found families can be way better than blood relatives. But it just got hammered on my head so often I started to get tired of it. And since you have so many stories and so many characters, a lot of things get just quickly brushed through (I wanted to see more of the conflict between D/Ali’s convictions and Leila’s or Nalam’s). So I felt more like reading a report on those characters than a story. Edit: After reading Emily’s brilliant and far more positive review, it occurred to me that the same structure, of having several characters and each chapter dedicated to one, weaving the story together, worked pretty well for me in Girl, Woman, Other. So perhaps it was mostly the writing that made it difficult for me to connect.

The whole Leila The Wise and Kind thing got old at some point, as well. I was rolling my eyes, for example, at Leila giving advice on depression for one of the characters (exercise, yoga… you get the gist), although she herself never went through that, and the wide-eyed character being like “Oh my gosh you’re right”. As a person with depression, I can tell you that advice as those is well-intended but hardly effective.

Oh, also – the ending! I cannot believe that ending at all. I will not spoil it, but I have real trouble suspending disbelief for that. It was just frustrating.

The best part of the novel is how it introduces us to the real life Cemetery of Companionless, and how gloriously diverse this story is. I just wish the execution had been different, and then it would have been a powerful, beautiful read.

6 thoughts on “Review: 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World, by Elif Shafak

  1. Great review, and I completely agree with you. I also felt emotionally distant from the characters and thought the book was full of “gimmicks”, besides being a cocktail of every drama on this earth. I wish the author focused on something single and concrete and made THIS touching and believable, rather than marching off to tell this grand saga of Istanbul in so few pages. Shafak failed to persuade me with her vision – including with her “magical realism” at the end. I actually saw through her every “literary” move and creative expression before it happened on the page – something which the reader should not do because the writer should be “cleverer”. I also agree with you on Leila’s giving advice – there were some sentences of “wisdom” in the book which seem common sense and forced, and there was a feeling that Shafak wanted us to exclaim: “how beautiful and true!”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! Yes, I was so surprised (and not positively) by the magical realism at the end! I normally enjoy magical realism but this felt so rushed and out of place. And ugh the depression advice was the one I remembered, but there are several of those that I totally agree with you, they sounded like they were just there for us to admire their wisdom.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I can definitely see where you’re coming from, though I got on with the writing style a bit better which I think helped overall. (Honestly I hated the writing in the first three pages so I’m surprised it turned around for me, but I’ll take it!) Weirdly, the multitude of extra character stories worked so much better for me here than they did in Girl, Woman, Other, I think partially because it was half as many but also because they were all tied clearly to a central character. I did start to get them confused in the second part of the book though, and I did find Leila unlikable at times as well. Maybe this will be a case of needing to lower my rating after some time has passed, but ultimately I think my expectations were just so low from the underwhelming reviews that I couldn’t possibly have been disappointed. I’m sorry it didn’t turn out better for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Emily! It’s okay, I guess we can’t love every book. But I’m glad you liked it better than I did, because I really wanted to love it (maybe that made my expectations too high?). I wonder if this will make it to the WP longlist, I think it’s experimental enough that it might. What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hmmm I think it definitely has a chance, but I know you’re not alone in feeling underwhelmed with it, so maybe the judges will feel that way also. Even at 4 stars it wasn’t one of my favorite Booker nominees written by women this year, so I’m hoping some of the others would make it ahead of this one! (My fingers are crossed so hard for Ducks, as you know.)

        Liked by 1 person

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