Elif Shafak is one of my favourite authors, her books, usually written from a feminist viewpoint have been bestsellers and popular around the world. When her new book released this summer I didn’t hesitate to read it. This is Leila’s story, of the 10 minutes, 38 seconds that her brain took to shut down after her heart stopped beating. As her brain cells die one by one, starved of oxygen, she recalls her life. A life filled with sorrow, struggle and yet filled with friends, who though broken themselves, give her support and safety. It is the story of Leila’s journey from a schoolgirl in Vans to becoming Tequila Leila in Istanbul; her love story filled with tragedy; her death which brings her the freedom that she always craved but which was attainable only on her death. Her friends are as broken as she is, all of them not an acceptable part of the society and yet all of them band together to become a group, to become Leila’s family, to help her as she helped all of them.
This book is a story of survival, it points out the hypocrisies of society, the people who we want to ignore or banish from the society thinking them to be immoral or a bad influence. We do not realise ( or want to realise) that they too are human, with all the characteristics of human. They too feel hurt, fall in love, have heartbreak, laugh; they just want to survive. The book touches you, Leila ensnares you, you know how her end will come and yet you are engrossed in Leila’s life. You know that Leila’s life is filled with struggles, struggles which she will find hard to overcome and yet you cannot help but root for her. When her soul finally attains her freedom, you feel happy for her.
One thing which does stand out in Elif Shafak’s novels is how Istanbul, the city becomes one of the characters in the book. She doesn’t write about the city by putting a veil over its unsavoury parts but instead shows it with all its grime and helplessness. Her description of the city personifies it as a living breathing entity, an entity that ensnares and makes you want to discover the city yourself. She brings to life the city making it an indispensable part of the story.
This book is on the Booker awards shortlist and rightly so. As always the words are lyrical having the power to move you. It cannot be called an uplifting book, but yet it ends on a positive note. Leila’s story is about the vagaries of life and the struggle of living life on your own terms. Leila brings together her band of misfits, making them take risks so that Leila gets her due, making them all a family with, Leila as the link.