I lugged the heavy book home from the library, hard-cover, 306 pages long. Like dozens of other novels I'd brought home, it promised a good read. I hoped. These days, if a book doesn't engage me by its first 50 pages, I'd just give up and return it to the library.
This new book had an odd title, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World. Sounded like science fiction, not my favorite. The author's name, Elif Shafak, looked odd, too.
I skimmed the back cover blurbs: "heartbreaking meditation," "haunting, moving, beautifully written," and Hanif Kureishi's claim: "Elif Shafak is one of the best writers in the world today."
Normal exaggerated blurbs, I thought.
Inside I noted that Elif Shafak, a British-Turkish novelist, is the most widely read female writer in Turkey. She's published oodles of novels, been translated into 50 languages, has a Ph.D. and has taught all over the place in Turkey, US and UK. And so on. Impressive.
I open the book. The main character, Tequila Leila, a whore, has just been murdered and left in a dumpster outside Istanbul. Her heart has stopped but her brain is still active—for 10 minutes 38 seconds. She remembers her life and the life of other outcasts like her.
Okay, I get it. I start to read. I soon discover that Shafak writes a mean description of Istanbul. I always know where I am, indoors or out. She writes equally fine characterizations. Her people step right off the page. I never have to stop and flip back to remember who a character is. They just stay alive for me.
I'm well past page 50 and reading avidly. The whole Turkish world of outcasts, of whores, of transvestites, of artists, of protesters, rises off the pages. I'm excited. I sense that Shafak had pulled me right into the story, that the novel reveals not just the dregs of society, it also discloses something about me.
My exhilaration rises as I read. Will this book join the short list of books I have read and will never forget, works such as Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop; James Joyce's Ulysses; D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover; F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby; Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer or Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage.
By page 203, I understood that it would. Then I did something I'd never done when reading a book; I burst into tears. Happy tears. Excited tears.
Now I've finished the book. Both Hanif Kureishi and I say, "Elif Shafak is one of the best writers in the world today."
But a word of warning. What is a terrific book for me may be, for you, one of those books you give up and return after reading 50 pages.