55 pages 1 hour read

Elif Shafak

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2019

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Summary and Study Guide


Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World was published in 2019. Shafak is an award-winning British Turkish novelist who advocates for women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights through her fiction. Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World examines the life of a sex worker who was murdered in Istanbul, Turkey, exploring key moments in her life while her friends desperately try to arrange her funeral. The novel investigates topics like violence against women, family, and the dualities that complicate the world around us. It has been nominated for several awards and was shortlisted in 2019 for the Booker Prize.

This study guide refers to the 2020 Bloomsbury Publishing edition.

Content Warning: The source material discusses death and murder, miscarriage, ableism, childhood sexual assault and rape, human trafficking, domestic violence, gendered violence and abuse, mistreatment of sex workers, self-harm, suicide and suicidal ideation, transphobia, anti-gay bias, a mass shooting and gun violence, substance abuse, and exhumation of a grave; this guide touches on all these topics.

Plot Summary

The novel 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World tells the story of Leila, a sex worker living in Istanbul, Turkey. It begins with Leila murdered and thrown into a dumpster. After her heart stops beating, her brain continues to function for 10 minutes and 38 seconds; during this time, Leila remembers pivotal moments in her life that led her to this moment. She remembers growing up in Van, Turkey, and the complicated relationships that she had with her aunt, mother, and father. She contemplates her uncle raping her, which led to a pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage, and how she came to understand her role within her family through this incident. She remembers the day her younger brother died, her subsequent choice to run away to Istanbul, and the events that led to her being trafficked and forced into sex work at the age of 16. She remembers the time her client threw acid on her back, her marriage to a young revolutionist named D/Ali, D/Ali’s death during the 1968 mass shooting in Istanbul on International Workers’ Day, and her final client. She remembers each of the five friends she made throughout her life and explores the impact they had on her. Her final memory is of a birthday party thrown for her by “the five” and how they smiled and laughed together.

Once Leila’s body is discovered and 10 minutes and 38 seconds have passed, she is sent to the Cemetery of the Companionless—a cemetery for people without family or whose families refuse to claim them—despite protests by the five, who want to give Leila a proper funeral. Devastated by the loss of their friend and angered by the discrimination she faces even in death for having been a sex worker, the five come up with a plan to give her a funeral; they go to the Cemetery of the Companionless and exhume Leila’s body to bury her next to her husband in a different cemetery. On the run from the police and unable to make it to the cemetery where D/Ali was buried, they decide to lay her to rest in the water under the Bosphorus Bridge; Leila had wanted to be laid to rest in the sea. The five throw Leila’s body off the bridge and into the water below during a standoff with the police; Sabotage Sinan is shot in the shoulder by a police officer.

In the water, Leila’s soul finds the betta fish that her family had thrown into a creek on the day that she was born. The betta fish shows her that time ceases to exist underwater; past, present, and future all exist simultaneously. Leila feels at peace and happy. After the events on the bridge, Leila’s friends decide to move into Leila’s old apartment together as Istanbul changes around them.