Shafak’s ‘10 Minutes’ attempts to represent sex workers but falls short
“10 Minutes and 38 Seconds in this Strange World” begins with the end. Leila Afi — who had substituted the ‘y’ in her name to the atypical ‘i’ to change ‘yesterday’ for ‘infinity’ — is dead, strewn against a dumpster in an alleyway. Yes, physically her heart stops beating, but her brain hasn’t shut down yet — and it won’t be, not for another 10 minutes and 38 seconds. In those 10 minutes, the readers are taken on a journey into her heart-wrenching past — a past littered with picturesque memories from munching on sugary-sweet wax with Leila’s aunt and mother to much more tragic moments that led to her eventually life as an Istanbul sex worker.
Shafak goes all in with this set-up. We don’t just start at Leila’s birth, but at the moment of her conception. When Leilia’s mother was pregnant with her, she paid considerable care and made sure to take the necessary precautions.
“She had not touched a single peach so the baby wouldn’t be covered in fuzz; she had not used any spices or herbs in her cooking so the baby wouldn’t have freckles or moles; she had not smelled roses so the baby wouldn’t have port-wine birthmarks. Not even once had she cut her hair lest their luck also be cut short. She had refrained from hammering nails into the wall in case she mistakenly hit a sleeping ghoul on the head. After dark, knowing too well that the djinn held their weddings around toilets, she had stayed in her room, making do with a chamber pot.”
It’s difficult not to fall in love with Shafak’s prose. Shafak recognizes the significance of minute details. Sights, smells and tastes come unbidden. I felt like I was surrounded within the Turkish atmosphere and culture during the mid-20th century. Shafak treks the life of Lelia, using each minute to represent a milestone. She doesn’t stray from this methodology for the majority of the novel. In fact, she chronologizes historic landmarks alongside Lelia’s growth. We learn of John F. Kennedy’s assassination and of Trotsky’s influence in Turkey. For the most part, this style works. One knows what to expect: Minute two is Leila’s adolescence and minute three is her hormonal teenage years. Spliced within this consistent technique are snippets of Leila’s friend’s perspective — the “five” as Lelia so carefully dubs. The change in perspectives takes away from the flow of the narrative. At first, I faithfully read through each character, but then found myself skimming as I progressed deeper into the book. Some of Leila’s friends only appeared for a brief segment of the book — I couldn’t reconcile their significance to the plot with their random chapters.
More than the style, it’s easy to be tired by Shafak’s cyclical narrative. Don’t get me wrong, I felt my eyes sting more often than not while reading “10 Minutes and 38 Seconds,” but soon, the plot became predictable. I really wanted to like this book, but I couldn’t muster the same level of empathy I had at the beginning. What once seemed like an apt way to shed a humanistic lens on the life of a sex worker in Turkey ends up holding a darker implication of romanticism. Shafak shies away from delving into the vulgar and vile aspects that come with the high-risk lifestyle. Continually, we circle around Leila’s way of life. We read about the musky smell of sex in the room, but not the sexual acts themselves. Instead, much of the plot is spent detailing the beauty encompassing Lelia’s brothel. While there are merits in highlighting the beauty in horror, “10 Minutes and 38 Seconds” is generally disappointing. With its topic, the novel could’ve done more to bring awareness to the exploitation of women in Turkey back then and now.