Monthly Archives: May 2024

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak

When a member of our book group suggested this novel for us to read in 2024, I was enthusiastic. I had very much enjoyed The Architect’s Apprentice (2014) and admired the scope of The Island of Missing Trees (2022). 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was published in (2019) and had received good reviews. The book includes references to sexual abuse, and the life of a sex worker. For this Elif Shafak was investigated by the Turkish authorities. She lives in exile from Turkey.

I admire her writing for its lavishness and for its inventiveness. The Architect’s Apprentice is one of the richest works of fiction I have ever read, featuring an elephant, the building of some of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the Ottoman Empire, life in the harem, and the travels of the apprentice. The Island of Missing Trees featured a fig tree from Cyprus that was transplanted to North London, and which contributed to the narrative about the divisions in Cyprus’ past. I wouldn’t say that it was entirely successful, but it was interesting.

In 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World the main character has been murdered, but before her brain stops functioning it is recalling life events through smell and taste, and this is a device to learn about Leila’s life. Richness of descriptions and innovation are combined.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World has been described as a love letter to Istanbul. More accurately, it’s a love letter to the outcasts, underdogs and misfits of Istanbul. Leila has been murdered, and her recollection of her life in the last 10 minutes and 38 seconds reveals that she had five friends, all misfits in Istanbul, as she is. In the second half of the book, the friends come together to reclaim Leila’s body, and then to give her the burial they believe she should have. Murder and funerals might seem to be sombre subjects, but there is plenty of merriment and celebration in this novel.

In many ways it is a book of lists: the 10 minutes before her brain activity ceased, her five friends, and the many descriptions of places and events in her life. Leila’s life began with salt, for example, and later, when her brother was born, with goat stew. We follow her as a rebellious young woman in Turkey in the 50s and 60s. She suffers sexual abuse by a member of her family and to cover this up her family plan a wedding to her cousin. She runs away to the capital and becomes a prostitute. This life is no easier, and she remembers an incident with sulphuric acid. On a happier note she also finds her five friends and has a brief but happy marriage with a communist student. 

We do not understand her murder until the second part of the novel, where we also meet the coroner who espouses the theory that the brain continues after the heart has stopped beating. And perhaps more important that the activity of her brain, the novel describes how the significance of Leila, or anyone, on her friends and family also lives on after death. This is an exploration of death within a community, a city, a family, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World.

And Elif Shafak tells a good story, even if the Turkish authorities did not like it. Leila’s life story is rich with detail of her family in the city of Van, where her birth mother had to give up her title of mother to her husband’s first wife. Where to be a girl was a definite disadvantage, especially in terms of education, arranged marriage, abuse and so-called ‘honour killings’ (where there is no honour at all). In Istanbul, the lives of a prostitute, and of the other misfits, are vividly described, with all the risks and abuse that the friends must endure. The events take place for the most part from the 1960s, when Istanbul was changing very rapidly, including as a result of the opening of the bridge over the Bosphorus in 1973.

Here is an example of how she uses lists, and of an excellent description of a character, Bitter Ma, the madam of the brothel in which Leila works:

The new madam was a woman of ample proportions, resolute gait, and rouged cheeks that sagged like flaps of staked leather. She had a tendency to address every man who walked in, whether a regular or not, as ‘my pasha’. Every few weeks she visited a hair-dressing salon named Split Ends where she had her hair dyed a different shade of blonde. Her wide-set, protuberant eyes gave her an expression of permeant surprise, although she rarely was. A web of broken capillaries fanned out across her mighty nose, like streams threading their way down a mountainside. No-one knew her real name, Both the prostitutes and the punters called her ‘Sweet Ma’ to her face and ‘Bitter Ma’ behind her back. She was all right as far as madams went, but she had a tendency to do everything to excess: she smoked too much, swore too much, shouted too much and was simply too much of a presence in their lives – a veritable maximum dose. (47)

All members of our reading group enjoyed this novel, some for the second time, and it produced a lively discussion about Istanbul, Turkey, death and reading other novels by Elif Shafak.

Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak is a Turkish-British writer, born in 1971. She writes in Turkish and English. She has published 11 works of fiction, some in English. She lives in London, and has lived in many other countries, including being brought up in Turkey. She says she carries Istanbul in her soul, and many of her books feature the city, as this one does. I admire her ability to tell a strong story through some well-drawn characters, and to innovate with some interesting narrative tropes, such as a talking tree.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World by Elif Shafak, published in 2019. I used the edition from Penguin 312pp. Shortlisted for Booker Prize 2019

I have reviewed two other novels by Elif Shafak on Bookword blog:

The Architect’s Apprentice in April 2023,

and The Island of Missing Trees in August 2022 

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Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman

It feels, doesn’t it, like the worst of times. And that things are getting still worse. Here is another view:

The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. (13)

Rutger Bregman, the Dutch author of Humankind, goes on to say ask why we don’t realise this.

It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional, and the more exceptional an event is – be it a terrorist attack, violent uprising, or natural disaster – the bigger its newsworthiness. (13)

And it’s because we are susceptible to negativity bias and increasingly to availability bias and come to assume that the exceptional we are being told about is common. And in his book, Rutger Bregman goes on to challenge the myth that humans are but a small step from anarchy and violence, and basically selfish animals.

Humankind: a hopeful history

The pessimistic view of humans is exemplified in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. In that fiction, some schoolboys are marooned on a desert island, and after some weeks, when the survivors are rescued, violence has broken out, some boys have died and the survivors have developed a system of rules and beliefs based on humiliation and terror. 

And, you may be asking, if humans are kind and sociable as Rutger Bregman claims, how did Auschwitz ever take place, or the murder of so many women and children in Gaza in the last few months? And I am sure you can think of many other occasions when humans have behaved very badly.

This is a hopeful history, and Rutger Bregman traces back the success of the evolution of homo sapiens to the development of kind communities. He reports a very long history of communal hunter-gathering, but the harmony was threatened when humans began to settle on farms and to create towns. This brought competition for land, from such competitions so many harms in the world arise.

But in small and local communities, he argues, the basic urge to kindness and community spirit holds good. The further you are from conflict the less you care about other humans. He finds a real-life example of boys being marooned on an island and finds that they survived without the conflict of Golding’s imagination. 

The story of the real-life shipwreck of six boys who survived over a year in harmony on a Pacific island of Ata in the 1960s is not well known. Their rescuer, Captain Warner wrote,

‘the boys had set up a small commune with food garden, hollowed-out tree trunks to store rainwater, a gymnasium with curious weights, a badminton court, chicken pens and a permanent fire, all from handiwork, an old knife blade and much determination.’ [quoted on p32]

The idea that humans are brutish and need rules to control them, a Hobbesian outlook, underpins how many institutions work. Rutger Bregman considers how the world might look, if our social institutions were based on more cooperative principles, in particular, schools, prisons and our governance. He finds examples where innovations have taken place: a school in the Netherlands, the prison system in Norway, a democratic local government in Venezuela. And he reminds us about the Danish under German occupation in October 1943 and their response to the plan to arrest and deport all Jewish citizens. It was defeated by the actions of thousands of Danish citizens who ensured that Jewish citizens escaped, often by small boats to Sweden. Rather than pitched into chaos and panic, the London Blitz produced resilience, helpfulness and camaraderie, known as the Blitz Spirit. While this upbeat approach was not universal, the bombing did not reduce the British population to panic and chaos. (Sadly, the example of this reaction did not stop the Allies using the same tactic on German towns and cities at the end of the war. The German population was not cowed either. The exceptionalism of the British response proves to be another myth.)

Rutger Bregman is not providing a prescription for individual lives, partly because it is not disputed that towards our immediate neighbours humans are for the most part compassionate, caring and generous. Rather Rutger Bregman considers that social institutions based on trust, generosity and friendliness may be more successful and cheaper for society than our current models, especially for prisons and schools. 

But here are three warnings:

  1. The opposing theory that humans are prevented by a very thin veneer from being violent and selfish is like a hydra. ’Veneer theory is a zombie that just keeps coming back’ (19).
  2. To stand up for human goodness is to take a stand against the powers that be, and you will be seen as threatening, subversive, seditious and a communist (where such a theory has a bad name).
  3. To stand up for human goodness will also produce accusations of naivety, ridicule, lack of common sense. 

Advocating more positive views of humans and their behaviour is not, however, doomed to fail. It is the right time.

The reasons for hope, by contrast [to the doomsayers], are always provisional. Nothing has gone wrong – yet. You haven’t been cheated – yet. An idealist can be right her whole life and still be dismissed as naïve. This book is intended to change that. Because what seems unreasonable, unrealistic and impossible today can turn out to be inevitable tomorrow.
It’s time for a new realism. It’s time for a new view of humankind. (20)

Humankind: a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman, published in 2020 by Bloomsbury. Translated from the Dutch by Elizabeth Manton and Erica Moore. 467pp

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Doreen by Barbara Noble

War is no place for children. Before the Second World War plans were made to evacuate children from major targets of air raids and evacuation began soon after war was declared in September 1939. The air raids did not start until September the following year by which time many children had returned to the cities. But when the Blitz got going, in the Autumn of 1940, parents had difficult decisions to make. 

This novel considers the theme of separation, children from adults, but also adults from their children. And a second theme is the influence of class. Decisions by Mrs Rawlings and her former husband are influenced by class differences. Inner city folk took the brunt of the bombings, while the more affluent as well as the country poor lived in relative safety.

This novel, published in 1946, describes the rawness and attrition of those early war years when London and other cities were subjected to bombs, and when children and parents were often separated.

Doreen 

Mrs Rawlings is a proud woman, a single mother with a 9-year-old daughter Doreen. When the first call is made for Doreen to be evacuated out of London, she refuses to let her go. Mrs Rawlings cannot imagine living without her daughter, but as the raids intensify and the consequent damage persists, a chance opportunity presents itself. Mrs Rawlings works as a cleaner and a conversation with Helen, a secretary in the same offices, produces the suggestion of a private arrangement. Doreen is sent to live in the country with Helen’s brother and his wife, the Osbornes. 

Francie Osborne has been very unhappy that she and her husband have not had children, and the arrival of Doreen into their house brings the opportunity to care for a child. Mr Osborne has asthma and so has been excused combat duties. He works as a solicitor. He too finds Doreen a very acceptable companion and enjoys teasing her and encouraging her confidence while engaged together in gardening and countryside walks.

The child and the foster parents quickly become very fond of each other. But Mrs Rawlings, who visits for Christmas, is worried that Doreen is becoming too familiar wigth the middle-class ways of the household. She eats with the family, for example, instead of in the kitchen and she has her own bedroom. Mrs Rawlings is afraid that the child will not be satisfied with their home when she returns. She is also jealous of the affection between Francie and Doreen.

Doreen’s emotional response to her arrival at the Osborne’s house is very well described. I remember the horror of being sent away to boarding school, at the same age as Doreen. Everything was strange. She gradually relaxes, encouraged by her foster parents, but the confidence she begins to show is the very thing to fuel her mother’s fears.

Everything comes to a head when Doreen’s father, hitherto a murky and an unknown person in Doreen’s life, arrives at the foster home. He shares his former wife’s anxiety, and he confronts the child with his fears. 

“You don’t take long to settle down, do you?” he said curtly. “Well, I reckon it is all a bit different to what you’ve been used to – posh house, maid to open the door, everything cushy. It seems to me your mother made a big mistake in sending you down here. You get too used to living soft and next thing you’ll be thinking home’s not good enough.”
Doreen began to cry, silently, her face puckered, her heart sore. She understood perfectly well that she was being accused of disloyalty, and no scolding could have hurt her as much as that reproach. (125)

Mr Rawlings’s subsequent actions create chaos and eventually trigger a resolution of sorts.

We see a world where children are used by adults: Mrs Rawlings is single, lonely, isolated from the world with nothing to enjoy in life but Doreen; Francie really wanted a child; Geoffrey felt guilty that Francie had no child and was happy that he supported his wife with their foster daughter; Mr Rawlings wants revenge upon his former wife and for the snobbish treatment, as he sees it, with which he was greeted by Geoffrey Osborne. All these adults have reasons for making decisions about Doreen in which she has no say. As a result her life is put in danger in London, and she has to react to intense and conflicting adult emotions.

The writing is very immediate and accessible. The air raids and their effects are vividly described, and since Barbara Noble lived in London during the war we can assume she was writing from experience.

When they arrived at the darkened frontage of the hotel, Geoffrey pressed the Night Bell, expecting to be let in by a sleepy, grumbling porter. But the lounge hall seemed full of people, wide awake, fully clothed and trailing blankets. The receptionist booked them a room rather grudgingly but without demur. Geoffrey felt that everyone was staring at them, as if the place were not a hotel but a private club. There was curious atmosphere abroad, a kind of solidarity which shut out strangers. From scraps of conversation overheard, he gathered that the raid had been a sharp one, mostly concentrated on the West End. (137)

Barbara Noble is excellent at describing the small things in a scene which give sense to the bigger picture as this example shows. And the understanding of the child’s experience is very poignant and powerful.

Doreen by Barbara Noble, first published in 1946. Reissued by Persephone in 2005, with a preface by Jessica Mann. 238pp

Also on Bookword Blog by Barbara Noble: The House Opposite, reviewed in March 2021.

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