Updated: Nov 17, 2019
LONGLISTED FOR THE 2019 BOOKER PRIZE.
Leila knows she is dead. Not from the fact that her body is lying in a waste bin but from the facts that her heart is no longer beating, and her breathing has stopped. Her brain however is still, “brimming with life”.
In life Leila had been a prostitute. Tequila Leila was the name she had given herself. She was well known to the authorities and knew that they would have no trouble identifying her body once the sun came up and it was discovered.
Leila has no idea how long her brain will continue to function before it follows the rest of her organs and dies. However, it seems that as Leila comes closer to losing actual conciseness, her brain’s activity is heightened and memories of her life and past suddenly start streaming in. A minute in this state of mind can seem to last a lifetime and Leila finds herself remembering the smell, the feel of objects that lead her to vital memories from her life. Most of these memories are of her small number of closest friends. The age-old cliché that your life flashes before your eyes as you die seems to be true.
This novel is divided into three parts. With the first part, each chapter is a minute of memories, or a memory of one of Leila’s friends. The perspective changes constantly throughout these chapters switching to help the narrative. Through these memories the reader can start to construct Leila’s life, and how she has come to this ignominious end. During this reconstruction, you start to wonder do instants or circumstances in a life alter that life’s path or send it off on a different tangent, or is everything preordained, unchangeable, regardless the events that the life encounters. Would Leila’s life have been different if her father had not been so fanatically religious, closing off, denying Leila freedoms that most of us take for granted. Is it her father’s intolerance for the western world and religion that moulded Leila into the woman she became? What chance did Leila have as a young girl locked into and inescapable draconian way of life? Sexually abused by her Uncle, forced to marry the Uncle’s son. Leila has one option to escape this slowly closing trap. She runs away, leaving the family behind.
The second part of the novel is devoted to Leila’s five grieving friends who are determined to remove Leila’s body from the Cemetery of the Companionless. A Cemetery for the unwanted, the unknown, the unloved. A cemetery where there are no headstones just a piece of wood or tin with a number.
Leila’s friends know the difficulty and risks of digging up their friends body and yet they all proceed with the plan, displaying the power and love of true friendship and how powerful a force it can be, often stronger than blood.
Shafak turns this part of the novel, paradoxically, considering the situation and location, into a comedic charade, which is hilarious as the five friends argue and fight with each other while trying to find Leila’s gravesite.
The third part of the book, well, you will have to read it and find out.
I must say that I adore the metaphorical writing style that Shafak has used. This novel is a beautiful read,
“Burdened with these suspicions, she moved around the house, around her bedroom, around her own head, like an uninvited guest.”
“Unspoken words ran between the women of this town, like washing lines strung between houses.”,
Or my favourite,
“Restless and bouncy, and always a little bit distracted, she reeled through the days, a chess piece that had rolled on to the floor, consigned to building complex games for one.”
I feel I would have loved this novel, even if the narrative had been terrible, boring or ridiculous. The strength of the writing is tremendous. This novel does an incredible job pointing out the polar differences between the life of a young girl brought up in the east, under a religious zealot of a father, filling her young impressionable mind with dogma, and a young girl living in the west, growing up with opportunities that Leila could not even dream of, would not even be aware of their existence. For a young woman, this way of life is incredibly unfair and unjust. Sometimes fiction can teach us just as much as non-fiction, sometimes more. This is an incredible novel. The whole idea of the protagonist being dead at the beginning of the book and reliving their life through the memories of a slowly dying brain is just so original and works to such great effect. This novel also shines a light on the terrible, violent lives of the women trapped in horrible conditions that in a modern connected world should no longer exist.
This is one of my favourite reads of 2019. 5 Stars!
Elif Shafak is an award-winning British-Turkish novelist and the most widely read female author in Turkey. She writes in both Turkish and English, and has published seventeen books, eleven of which are novels. Her work has been translated into fifty languages. Shafak holds a PhD in political science and she has taught at various universities in Turkey, the US and the UK, including St Anne's College, Oxford University, where she is an honorary fellow. She is a member of Weforum Global Agenda Council on Creative Economy and a founding member of ECFR (European Council on Foreign Relations). An advocate for women's rights, LGBT rights and freedom of speech, Shafak is an inspiring public speaker and twice a TED Global speaker, each time receiving a standing ovation. Shafak contributes to major publications around the world and she has been awarded the title of Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres. In 2017 she was chosen by Politico as one of the twelve people who would make the world better. She has judged numerous literary prizes and is chairing the Wellcome Prize 2019.
There is a wonderful interview with Shafak talking about the novel here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6-9VsPqAsLo