By Harry Mottram: Two very different books set in two very different worlds chosen by two local book clubs. One novel set in a west coast American town and the other in Istanbul, Turkey. Both episodic in construction with a central figure – one an octopus and the other a dead sex worker but both with a death deadline that sets the clock ticking as the action moves to the end of the story.
Both book clubs are based in Axbridge and although separate sometimes they choose the same book – suggesting the similarity of the 21st century tastes of the members. The Axbridge Book Club is a comparatively new group founded by Sarah Baker and is largely a younger female group with meetings normally in the café or the pub while The Four Seasons Axbridge Book Club dates back a quarter of a century. I began the group after posting a notice in the Cheddar Valley Gazette – and it has gone through several evolutions with an accent on acclaimed 20th and 21st century novels. Being a member of both I couldn’t help but notice the similar structure of the two December novels chosen by the members – and couldn’t resist reflecting on the books together.
In Elif Shafak’s 11th novel, 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World, the protagonist Leila has died but apparently the mind keeps working after the heart stops giving Leila a chance to flick through the chapters of her life. It begins at the end and ends in the sea or rather the Bosphorus.
In Shelby Van Pelt’s debut novel Remarkably Bright Creatures, the protagonist Marcellus, a large octopus has 1,460 days to live allowing him to flick through his life and that of Tova Sullivan the cleaner at the aquarium where he lives. It begins when he has 160 days to go and ends in the sea, or rather the Pacific Ocean.
Remarkably Bright Creatures, is partly an anthropomorphic novel but has a second and more expansive narrative concerning the life of Tova the cleaner who befriends the soft bodied multi limbed mollusc. It is her story of living in Sowell Bay that is of more interest as she deals with a number of issues in her life. Her late husband, dead brother, lost son to name but three. There’s also her relationship with Marcellus as he offers one tentacle as a handshake as the duo bond. Her grief and loneliness as someone nearing the end of her working life and her feeling of mortality is strongly conveyed while Marcellus offers empathy and understanding – if unspoken.
Shelby van Pelt’s attention to detail gives an insight into the ordinary lives of Americans (who the octopus considers as remarkably bright creatures) who you’d never notice in a crowd. Aunt Jeane’s chaotic trailer park home, Etham the Scottish ex-patriot owner of the seven eleven, Mary Ann and the Knit-wits sowing group, Terry the owner of the aquarium where she works as well as Cameron, the sofa surfer in pursuit of his biological father. She layers in so much detail whether it’s the Sowell Bay High School or Avery’s surf shop that it feels real. Although not as bleak but like Babara Kingsolver’s Demon Copperhead it is criticism of contemporary America with its run-down seaside resorts, drugs, exploitation of animals in the aquarium and those living on the edge and hoping for something better.
As Tova’s life unfolds and Cameron’s mission gets underway, we suspect that the various strands will eventually come together as indeed they do. And as the clock counts down to the end of Marcellus’ existence, we suspect how the novel will reach its predictable finale. On the way we learn a good deal about aquatic animals and how life is subject to a few key incidents that can affect – well a life. And keys seem to play a rather symbolic feature in the novel.
Very readable, and ultimately uplifting. There’s plenty of stuff on the internet explaining how intelligent Marcellus’s fellow species are – whether they are quite as erudite or good at escaping as he is then we must suspend our disbelief.
In Elif Shafak’s 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World, there’s a greater richness of characters and a evocation of the senses in terms of smells, descriptions and sounds as she wraps the reader into the very essence of Istanbul and its rich history dating back to the Roman Empire. She weaves in so much of the past from the Ottomans to the Armenians, the Bosnians and the Bulgarians – the Turkish capital city is a melting pot of cultures. And there are the stories of the misfits who in an enlightened society are integrated but here are shunned and done down. Leila’s Down’s Syndrome brother Tarkan, Zainab the Syrian fortune telling dwarf and Sinan the son of chemist. And there’s the character of Istanbul so vividly brought to life.
The overriding story is quite brutal since there is a succession of characters who want to be themselves but are held back, punished, condemned and even killed. Life would or could be so different in another culture and even another time for Leila. It’s a full on take down of Turkish society and how it fails so many people without an adequate welfare system. Leila identifies with those who don’t fit into the expectations of the conservative religious society dominated by Islam and universally old-fashioned values in the decades of the 1950s and 1960s. Whether it’s the fashion magazine photo spreads or the music of Elvis Presley Leila seeks out a more liberated and liberal minded world.
Unlike Remarkably Bright Creatures, Elif’s novel is a series of flashbacks as her body slowly shuts down – although it remains episodic in structure but is essentially a fictional biography related by an omniscient narrator. The stories begin after her merciless death to her watery resting place via an acid attack to an undignified burial. Populated by the stories of those who Leila meets in life we learn about the ghastly crime of her birth when her mother became her aunty decided by her bullying half-wit of a father – and her creepy child molesting uncle – there’s not too many laughs it has to be said. However it was a page turning read with a desire by the reader to find out what happened in the lead up to the protagonist’s death and the immediate aftermath as she lies in The Cemetery of the Companionless where her friends decide on a more fitting burial leading to an exciting climax.
A rich and enjoyable read and I preferred it to the last novel of Sharak’s The Island of Missing Trees as although I love trees, as a central motif for me it seemed a bit dead. Well, trees don’t talk but in 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World, a dead woman’s mind does talk, which is strange but then, this is a strange world.