Tequila Leila was a prostitute until she was murdered, her body found later in a dumpster. So far so staple-noir. In Shafak hand’s this moves into different territory – life-story, memoire, discussion of Turkish society’s attitudes to women, in particular the hypocrisy around sex-workers (which is not exclusive to Turkey).
The “10 minutes and 38 seconds” of the title relates apparently, to the longest time there has been recorded activity on the brain stem of an otherwise dead person…inviting us to reconsider what we understand by dead, or when death truly occurs.
Shafak uses this to sort back through Leila’s ‘memory files’ – going back to a rural childhood, where she she was the first child of the second wife of a villager – he having been allowed to marry for a second time because his first marriage had not produced any children. However, on being born, Leila was handed to the first wife to raise as her own. She got to call her natural mother her “aunt”. It was a confused and damaging upbringing.
Leila’s other memories include a close childhood friendship, an escape to Istanbul (always a “she-city” according to Shafak) and the life of a prostitute on the (in)famous “Street of Brothels”, and her five closest / only friends – Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Jameelah, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humerya – all of whom have stories behind them and those names, which Shafak glories in recounting.
It is a profound, melancholy, heart-string-tugging novel and Shafak is a first-rate story-teller. It is one of those “lose yourself in their world” books. There are some tough sections, the lives portrayed have not been easy, but in the end it is about the love between Leila and her friends and their refusal to let her remains lie in the out of town Cemetery of the Companionless: a place used for the burial of those who die without family or friends to claim them, the homeless, the destitute or the unfortunate foreigner who dies in Istanbul and the family do not have the means to bring them home.