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.