ManBooker Review #3 : 10 minutes 38 seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak

This is a truly beautiful book.

Obviously visually with it’s stunning cover, shades of blue and gold that complement each other so perfectly.

But the words, the words within are truly, truly beautiful. This is a story told and imagined through the senses. Through taste, touch, smell. Through sound and sight, Istanbul and it’s inhabitants are brought to life.

At the simplest of levels this is the story of Leila, a prostitute found dead in a dumpster in Istanbul, discovered and then robbed by youths high on glue. A story with such an ugly beginning is in fact breathtaking in it’s beauty.

The story of Leila’s life is told as her brain begins to close down, minute by minute, sense by sense.

And Leila’s life is unexpected, intertwined with the people she meets and importantly the friends she makes. Five friends, all with different stories, backgrounds and ethnicity, that come together in the cultural melting pot that is Istanbul.

All five of Tequila Leila’s friends are outcasts in one shape or form.

Nostalgia Nalan, once Osman, a brave transgender woman who ran from her farming family in Anatolia on her wedding night.

Sabotage Sinan, Lelia’s oldest friend, son of a progressive female pharmacist, now trapped in a loveless marriage, forced to hide his friendships.

Jameelah, Somalian born to Muslim father and Christian mother, destroyed by her mother’s death, trafficked to Istanbul and prostitution.

Zaynab122, born in Lebanon into a Sunni family. A family so intermarried that dwarfism is common, hence the 122. Making her way to Istanbul, she finds herself cleaning the brothel where Lelia works.

Hollywood Humerya, cat rescuer and nightclub singer, at home in Istanbul after running from Mesopotamia and an enforced, abusive marriage.

These friendships are the core and the heart of our story. They are the core and the heart of Lelia’s life. Rejected by her own family Lelia’s support and sustenance comes from this diverse group, a complexity which is symbolic and reflective of the city around them.

This is story of true friendship, the friendship that springs from adversity and a meeting of souls, friendships that move beyond accepted definition and become akin to family.

…there were two kinds of families in this world: relatives formed the blood family; and friends, the water family…

…the water family, this was formed much later in life, and was to a large extent of your own making. While it was true that nothing could take the place of a loving, happy blood family, in the absence of one, a good water family could wash away the hurt and pain collected inside like black soot…

Her ‘water family’ are those people that Leila’s can share her truth with, that support her throughout her darkest moments and crucially whom her thoughts turn to in death as her mind slowly, over the course of 10 minutes, 38 seconds, shuts down.

The story of friendship is wrapped in a unique structure. Beginning with a chapter entitled The End we see Lelia’s death. Then follows three parts, The Mind, The Body, The Soul.

This novel is not linear, the story of Lelia’s life twists and turns just like the city that nurtures it. Yet it is the collection and formation of these unique friendships that are the glue that holds it all together.

Istanbul is portrayed as a feast for the senses, the span of the story and the diversity of the characters provides a tangible sense of the political, religious and historical turmoil and tensions which has created and at times almost destroyed this city. A city on a boundary, where East quite literally meets West, with all the complexities that brings.

Here we see the traditional and the modern fighting to co-exist. Sometimes rubbing alongside each other in a disordered and disjointed way. Sometimes one breaking the other beyond repair.

Story after story with in this novel present us with the expectations of family, of parents demanding conformity and tradition and of children torn. Torn between love, loyalty and the need to be true to themselves.

This is a story of what happens when your desires and your experiences don’t fit your preordained path. And how you find a place in the world when your world has rejected you.

And time and again in this generational, cultural, political battle it is women who are the casualties.

Women who are forced into marriages that abusive and filled with constrain . Women who are forced to give up their children, be it at birth or later in the name of family honour. Women who give up their bodies to survive, to serve the needs of men. Women who pay for men’s mistakes when political will changes and religion closes down a household and it’s freedoms.

What better way of commenting on the treatment of women by making a prostitute the focus and the protagonist of this story? By challenging each reader to look beyond a tragic and inauspicious start and to use that great leveller, Death, to revel this women’s history. To share her passions, her past, her tragedies and triumphs. To show us that we need to look beyond the label and the preconceptions, that in built sense of inevitability to discover the real women beneath. To see the brave women escaping one life and trying to make their own realities.

For Death is our storyteller here. It is the one inescapable factor in life and is presented throughout with a gentle but biting humour.

It is the rituals surrounding death that bring Lelia and her ‘water family’ together for one final time. The last section of the book is possibly one of the greatest testaments to friendship I have ever encountered in literature. It challenges the idea that there is one way to deal with a death, bringing together many rituals, creating the idea that departure should be as unique as each life lived.

A book of sincerity and complexity, of beauty, alongside great sorrow, Man Booker Judges if you are listening, this one deserves the Short List.

Rachel x

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