Shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World is an intensely beautiful novel about the wonder of life, the mystery of death and the strange space in between

Whether you’re new to 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World or have read it and would like to explore it more deeply, here is our comprehensive guide.

Written by Emily Facoory

Publication date and time: Published


An intensely beautiful and haunting novel about the wonder of life, the mystery of death and the strange space in between.

In the moments after she has been murdered and left in a dumpster outside Istanbul, Tequila Leila enters a state of heightened awareness. Her heart has stopped beating but her brain is still active. While the Turkish sun rises and her friends sleep soundly nearby, she remembers her life – and the lives of others: outcasts just like her. 

For Leila, each minute after her death brings a sensuous memory: the taste of spiced goat stew, sacrificed by her father to celebrate the long-awaited birth of a son; the bubbling vats of lemon and sugar women use to wax their legs while men attend mosque; the scent of cardamom coffee that Leila shares with a handsome student in the brothel where she works. Each memory, too, recalls the friends she made at each key moment in her life. As her epic journey to the afterlife comes to an end, it is her chosen family who brings her story to a buoyant and breathtaking conclusion.

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World

The main characters


Leila or ‘Tequila Leila’ is a sex worker living in Istanbul, Turkey. She is murdered at the beginning of the novel, with her brain continuing to function for 10 minutes and 38 seconds after her heart stops. Over the course of those minutes, she recalls the story of her life through a series of harrowing memories and flashbacks. Estranged from her own family, Leila relies on a group of five friends who provide her with support and love.

Sabotage Sinan 

Sabotage Sinan is Leila’s oldest friend and was her only friend at school; he’s protective and loyal and aims to help Leila as much as he can. 

Nostalgia Nalan

Considered to be Leila’s bravest friend, Nostalgia Nalan is a transgender woman who runs away from a marriage and escapes to Istanbul.   


Zaynab122 was born in Lebanon and added the 122 to her name in order to stop people wondering how tall she was due to her dwarfism.

Hollywood Humeyra

Hollywood Humeyra is a nightclub singer who runs away from her abusive husband, bonding with Leila when they rescued a cat together.


Jameelah was born in Somalia to a Christian mother and Muslim father and was trafficked to Istanbul and into prostitution.

About the author

Born in Strasbourg, the daughter of a diplomat and a philosopher, Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published 19 books, 12 of which are novels. Many of her works prominently featured the city of Istanbul, and deal with themes of Eastern and Western culture, the roles of women in society, the voices of marginalised groups and individuals, and human rights issues. 

Her 2019 novel, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World was shortlisted for the Booker Prize and RSL Ondaatje Prize, and was chosen as Blackwell’s Book of the Year. Her previous novel, The Forty Rules of Love was chosen by the BBC as one of its 100 Novels That Shaped Our World. In 2021 Shafak was conferred Doctor of Humane Letters by Bard College in the United States. She is an honorary fellow at St Anne’s College, Oxford. Her work has been translated into over 50 languages. 

Elif Shafak

What the critics said:

Sarah Jilani, The Times Literary Supplement

‘After Leila’s narrative reaches full circle with her murder, the perspective switches to that of her five friends. They are devastated to learn that Leila has been buried in an unmarked grave, and proceed to dig her up in the middle of the night. The scene is somewhat farcical – and not necessarily in a good way. Likewise, Shafak’s highly figurative language (“maybe she was only a half-broken horse”) will divide readers. But the author should be commended for her unflinching confrontation of a range of themes that will resonate well beyond contemporary Turkey: victim blaming, the policing of women’s behaviour, stigma surrounding disability, and violence against sex workers. Above all, Elif Shafak shows how Turkey’s diversity, long feared and denied by its powerful, lives on in the personal histories of its migrant multitudes in “old, manic” Istanbul.’

Francesca Segal, Financial Times

‘As Turkish writers know all too well, it is impossible for fiction to be truly apolitical and reading Shafak, one wouldn’t want it to be. Never didactic, here is an object lesson in how fiction can at once entertain and enlighten. Faint traces of magic and superstition linger, and Leila’s heightened state is reflected in the prose, which is lush and rich and lucid. This is a novel that gives voice to the invisible, the untouchable, the abused and the damaged, weaving their painful songs into a thing of beauty.’

Mirza Waheed, The Guardian

‘Shafak takes a piercing, unflinching look at the trauma women’s minds and bodies are subjected to in a social system defined by patriarchal codes. It’s a brutal book, bleak and relentless in its portrayal of violence, heartbreak and grief, but ultimately life-affirming.’

Keija Parssinen, Los Angeles Review of Books

‘What works as oration can lose depth and texture when translated to the page; here the quality of characters’ thoughts and reflections don’t always sustain readerly interest in the plot. There’s a certain looseness with language in Shafak’s books, something that might also be attributed to the primacy of storytelling in her work. She regularly employs clichés like “shook like a leaf” and “heavy like lead,” perhaps because singular and precise language matters less than sharing a propulsive yarn. She’s an extremely prolific writer; at times reading her books, it feels as if something in the art has been sacrificed in order to keep up with her impressive imagination.’

Michelle Lancaster, World Literature Today

‘Shafak’s themes are timely and timeless: sex workers and trafficking, the exploitation of refugees, secrets that corrupt, willful ignorance, violence on a grand scale as well as up close and personal, love lost and found, and treacherous hope, which we cannot live with or without. Though often grim, Shafak leavens her story with arch humor and wordplay. “If Paris was the city of love, Jerusalem the city of God, and Las Vegas the city of sin, Istanbul was the city of multitasking.” Shafak is multitasking throughout.’

Chika Gujarathi, Bookpage

‘These recollections, which begins from her birth in January 1947 to her death in November 1990, give glimpses of life as a woman in a country where personal, political and moral values are heavily dictated by religion and men. These glimpses are heartbreaking. They are unfair. And yet they also represent courage, beauty and hope, like a rag-tag team of misfits who are determined to stick it to the man against all odds … Shafak grew up in a lonely and curious world suspended between her independent, forward-thinking mother and a more spiritual, uneducated, old-world grandmother. This remarkable coexistence has made her not only the most widely read female author in Turkey but also an award-winning international author and TED speaker.’

What the author said:

‘I became very interested in a series of scientific studies that show after the moment of death, after the heart has stopped beating, the human brain continues to function for another few minutes. Particularly in Canada, in an intensive care unit, doctors have observed persistent brain activity in patients that had just passed away. So to me as an author that was intriguing, and I kept thinking what happens in the human brain in that limited amount of time if we remember. What do we remember of a whole life, what remains, the bad things or the good things?’

Watch the full interview here.

‘The beginning was quite challenging but also the minutes were very challenging [to write] because you realise you have only one minute, only one chapter to say something that left an impact in that person’s life. So I was very conscious that it was very precious, every page, maybe more than any other novel that I’ve written. I became very conscious that I had to condense the story, the minutes, and that was challenging but also motivating in a strange way.’

Watch the full interview here.

‘Turkey has gone backwards at bewildering speed in the past decade, becoming more nationalist, Islamist and authoritarian. And yet, even though the media is controlled by the government’s narrative, half of Turkish society continues to vote against the government. If you talk to young Turkish people, women and minorities you find strength and resilience. The novel too defies all kinds of dictatorships. It is a democratic space and my characters have autonomy, particularly Leila.’

Read the full interview here.

Questions and discussion points

Each chapter of 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World starts with a sensory experience, in which Leila recalls a particular scent or taste, such as ‘soil – dry, chalky, bitter,’ connecting it to the broader memory. What do you think Shafak is trying to convey by adding these sensory descriptions? 

Shafak has included several historic 20th century events in the novel, from the Vietnam War to the Taksim Square massacre. Why do you think she incorporated these true events? Do they imbue the fictional story with a greater sense of authenticity?

It could almost be argued that the city of Istanbul is a character within the novel, as the sense of place is so strong. Shafak includes a map of the city, noting significant landmarks that occur within the story. To what extent were you able to identify with and visualise the book’s setting and descriptions, and did the addition of the map help?

10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World has parallels with The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka, winner of the Booker Prize 2022, in that both protagonists are dead at the start of the novel. Do you see similarities or differences between the two books – for instance, in the way that Lelia reflects on the past, while Maali Almeida is preoccupied with the future?

‘In her experience, getting through life as unscathed as possible depended to a large extent on two fundamental principles: knowing the right time to arrive and knowing the right time to leave.’ Do you believe this quote from the book to be true, and how does it apply to the characters in the novel?

The memories Leila shares as she reflects on her life aren’t presented in chronological order, but jump between various time periods, from 1947 to 1990. Why do you think the author chose to tell the story in a non-linear way, and did it make the story harder to follow, or more powerful?

Despite its heavyweight themes, including sex crimes, abuse, and the exploitation of refugees, many readers have observed that this is a book of hope, friendship and love; a life-affirming novel that highlights the importance of relationships. Would you agree that it’s a book which presents an ultimately positive view of humanity? If you could sum up the book’s overall message in a single sentence, what would it be?

Most of Leila’s friends have unusual, almost comical nicknames, including Sabotage Sinan, Nostalgia Nalan, Zaynab122 and Hollywood Humeyra. What do you think the author is trying to convey by giving the characters such names?

The book has been described as spanning multiple genres, including historical fiction, romance and thriller, as well as possessing elements of magical realism. How would you categorise it, or does it defy such labelling?

The book is structured in three distinct parts: mind, body and soul – with the first focusing on Leila’s memories, the second revolving around her friends’ efforts to give her a proper burial, and the final section briefly describing Leila’s journey into peace. How well did you feel these very different sections gelled together?

Resources and further reading

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If you enjoyed this book, why not try

The Island of Missing Trees by Elif Shafak

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida by Shehan Karunatilaka

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

Colorful mask image on the front cover of The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida.