Tequila Leila, the prostitute, is dead. She has been murdered and her body dumped in a wheelie bin in Istanbul. She realizes “with a sinking feeling that her heart had just stopped beating, and her breathing had abruptly ceased, and whichever way she looked at her situation there was no denying that she was dead.”
But not so fast. Her body may be dead but her brain continues to function for 10 minutes and 38 seconds, time that allows her to look back at her life. The brain “entered into a heightened state of awareness, observing the demise of the body but not ready to accept its own end. Her memory surged forth, eager and diligent, collecting pieces of a life that was speeding to a close. She recalled things she did not even know she was capable of remembering, things she believed to be lost forever. Time became fluid, a fast flow of recollections seeping into one another, the past and present inseparable.”
She waits for daylight and for her five friends, misfits like her, to start looking for her. In the meantime, minute by minute, we are told her story and those of her friends.
These are stories about sexual violence and of surviving in a strongly patriarchal society. Leila’s father had two wives: Suzan, the older one, could not have children, so he marries Binnaz, who is younger. When Leila is born to Binnaz, he gives her to Suzan, telling the heartbroken mother that she will have plenty more. Binnaz has one more son but he has Down’s syndrome and dies young. Already fragile, these tragedies destabilize her.
Leila is a bright child. But her uncle, her father’s brother, singles her out for his favours and ultimately rapes her. When she tells her father, he blames the rape on her best friend Sinan. But when, instead of confronting Sinan, he arranges to have her married to another man, Leila understands the truth—and the betrayal. He does believe her but would never admit it because it would bring shame on the family. So rather than be married, she runs away to Istanbul where she ends up becoming a prostitute.
Although Elif Shafak writes about violence, especially violence against women, and an oppressive society, this is not a grim book. And that is because Leila is a fantastic character—feisty, generous, fiercely independent and determined not to let life get the better of her. Her five friends make up her adopted family: Nalan, a trans prostitute; Sinan, her childhood friend who follows her to Istanbul; Jameelah, a Somalian born to a Muslim father and Christian mother and now a prostitute; Zaynab122, a dwarf who cleans the brothel and tells fortunes; and Humeyra, who walked out of an unhappy arranged marriage and now sings in clubs. We get the story of each of the friends, and through these portraits, build up a picture of what life is like for those who refuse to conform.
Each chapter starts with a taste that recalls a part of Leila’s life. Salt, which she was covered in as a newly born baby to get her to cry; deep-fried mussels, which she shares with the love of her life, D/Ali, whom she marries; and lemon and sugar, which remind her of women meeting in her mothers’ house, a ritual of hair removal and gossip.
Shafak ends on a lighter note—a madcap escapade as the friends try to give Leila a decent burial. I enjoyed this book—it is grim in parts (the tastes/smells that begin each chapter are not always the pleasant ones I mentioned), Leila soars above all of it, and you have to admire her grit in the face of everything she has gone through.