Sexual violence in a patriarchal society



By Elif Shafak

Penguin Books/ Paperback/ 312 pages/$32.10/ Books Kinokuniya

3.5 stars

A murdered prostitute lies motionless on a wheelie bin, her purple slingback stiletto heels still on her feet.

“Tequila Leila” might have died, but it takes a while – 10 minutes and 38 seconds – before her brain cells shut down. Each minute brings bursts of smells and tastes from formative moments in her life.

British-Turkish writer Shafak, 47, prides herself in fighting for the rights of women, children and minorities, and her latest novel takes a hard look at the horrors they face in a patriarchal society – through the eyes of Leila, who grows up in Turkey’s eastern province of Van.

Leila, whose full name symbolises chastity and purity, is born to the second wife of a tailor, who promptly decides she will be given to his first wife to raise. Her real mother, who suffered many miscarriages before her birth, never recovers from this blow and one day tells her the truth.

For Leila, this bittersweet memory is tied to childhood recollections of lemon and sugar – which the women in her home use to wax their legs. It is on one such waxing day that she learns the secret.

The sweet tastes of her childhood mask difficult truths. Watermelon in the summer evokes the trauma of sexual advances from her uncle, who tells her six-year-old self she is to blame. When she exposes him a decade later, she faces the prospect of marrying his son. At her wits’ end, she flees to Istanbul, “where all the discontented and all the dreamers eventually ended up”. But she is picked up by a stranger and sold, beginning a life of prostitution.

Shafak, who has authored 11 novels, focuses on misfits who fall through the cracks, refuse to conform and live on the fringes in this one, her first Booker nomination.

Leila’s five friends – the only ones who seek her out after her death – show a different side of society. They include Nalan, who runs from his wedding to become his true self as a woman, and a dwarf who goes by Zaynab122. Despite their difficult circumstances, the group’s unyielding spirit shines through.

The novel’s premise proves to be an effective vehicle for the ups and downs in Leila’s story, but the book tapers out in its second and third parts, when it moves on to what her friends do after her demise.

If you like this, read: The Bastard Of Istanbul by Elif Shafak (Penguin Books, 2006, reissued in 2019, $18.14, Books Kinokuniya), about an Armenian-American who decides she must journey to Turkey.

• A version of this review was first published on June 25.

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