Elif Shafak once described Istanbul as a set of matryoshka dolls: a place where anything was possible. As with much of her previous work, that city plays a significant and shape-shifting role in this her 11th novel, where the Bosphorus, ‘waking from its turquoise sleep, yawned with force’ one November morning in 1990. It is ‘life at full blast’ — and yet the story’s beginning also marks an ending. A woman named Leila has just died, inside a wheelie bin on the outskirts of town.
‘Can’t you see, you moron?’ says the ringleader of the adolescent boys who discover her body. ‘She’s a whore.’ For a limited time, ‘Tequila Leila’, as she’s known to her friends and clients, will experience levels of cognition incredible to her, even while her organs begin to shut down. ‘Only a few hours ago she was singing, smoking, swearing, thinking… It was remarkable that her mind was working at full tilt — though who knew for how long.’
The answer is ten minutes 38 seconds. These last precious moments of consciousness form the novel’s first half, as Leila’s thoughts alight on tastes and sensations — lemon and sugar, cardamom coffee, sulphuric acid, single malt whisky and strawberry birthday cake — that evoke vivid memories. Her upbringing in distant Van, steeped in folklore and ritual, is marred by the conflicting parental claims of her father’s two wives, abuse at the hands of her uncle, a longed-for brother’s disability and a refusal to play the pliant, submissive daughter.
Often her recollections are linear; sometimes not. After all, ‘human memory resembles a late-night reveller who has had a few too many drinks: hard as it tries, it just cannot follow a straight line’. At 16, she escapes to Istanbul and becomes a sex-worker, witnessing monumental changes in this melting- pot of culture and language — the opening of the Bosphorus Bridge in 1973, the Taksim Square massacre of 1977.
During these years, Leila makes five crucial friends — a surrogate family whose stories are briefly interspersed with her own. Their terrible search for a woman whom society has deemed ‘companionless’, amid stony-faced bureaucracy from the morgue, forms the book’s second half. It is a life, Shafak insists — with all the skill, compassion and honesty of a writer at the height of her powers — of so much more depth and scale, loss and love than a national news bulletin flashing across television screens can ever convey: ‘Prostitute Found Slain… Fourth in a Month.’