To the women of Istanbul, and the city of Istanbul, which is, and has always been, a she-city"
I love that this is Elif Shafak's dedication for her book. It is oh-so-apt.
Many, many reviewers have spoken of the significance of the book's title both in depth & eloquently. So I'll not re-visit its' significance.
What I will say is reading this was extremely emotive. A squeeze to the heart.
This is Leila's story. And one that you should read. She recounts memories of her life, from her birth, to a young child, to an adult, to her final breath. Many of them long forgotten. Many of them best forgotten.
My heart cried out for the injustices suffered by her and so many women, both in the past as well as the present. Undoubtedly in the future too. Though I'm upset not only for the women, but for all people who are abused, displaced, judged, held back, hurting, ignored... the list is endless. All because they do not fit into the confined parameters of a patriarchal society. Or one marred by religious zealotry.
This story brings into sharp focus all these people and their stories. In a wondrous blend of the modern, changing world versus traditional, sometimes superstitious practices.
The underlying beauty in this book is friendship, a theme which comes across bold & strong. As I've read so many times in the past week (synchronicity?) "family you are born with, friends are family you choose". Or something along those lines. Which crossed my mind repeatedly while reading Leila's story. For her, this is so true.
We hear the backstories of Leila's dearest friends, each of them "...one of the five." who become her new family in ".... Istanbul, the city where all the discontented and all the dreamers eventually ended up."
Hollywood Humeyra, Jameelah, Nostalgia Nalan, Sabotage Sinan & Zaynab122 display an intense loyalty to Leila which is a joy to behold. What they do for her after her death is both fierce & brave.
"Leila did not think one could expect to have more than five friends. Just one was a stroke of luck."
"She had often thought five was a special number."
"If friendship meant rituals, they had them by the truckload."
" 'You are not family.' 'We were closer to her than family...' "
"Leila had friends. Lifelong, loyal, loving friends. She might not have had much else, but this she surely had."
I cannot even begin to express how reading about the "Cemetery of the Companionless" made me feel.
Sensual writing abounds. You can smell the scents of spices, cardamom, lemon. You can feel the heat from the sky. The evening breeze on your neck. The lights of the city at night. The sizzle of the food vendor's grill. See the sun reflecting off the harbour. Hear the seagulls careening. The writing is so wonderfully descriptive. It was like I could step into the pages and be there.
Don't think from my review that this is a depressing story. Far from it. I know it could be viewed that way. Yes, there is incredible sadness. But there is also hope. And friendship. And love. For me this book re-affirms how very special life it. What it means to be alive. How we can try to make changes and make the world more inclusive. And most importantly to (hopefully) be able to share your life with those who are special and mean something to you.
The ending, oh the ending!
"Free at last."
An absolute wonder from Elif Shafak. 5✩✩✩✩✩ plus.
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 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
Once again Nat and I agree, the synchronicity is amazing. :) With both of us giving this a five, it, like FLED, scores a perfect 10.