This is an exceptional novel by British-Turkish writer Elif Shafak and earned a well-deserved place in the Booker Prize shortlist in 2019.
I alternated between wanting to hide behind a cushion at the brutal descriptions of abuse, shouting at the injustices of the lives described, punching the air in support of Leila and her friends and marvelling at the way Elif brought such vibrancy to both Instanbul and her characters. I wanted to meet her friends and go for a coffee with them, which is always a good sign you’ve clicked!
The writing is just brilliant too, which always helps. Stunning descriptions and metaphors that make you catch your breath and wish you’d written that phrase.
The premise doesn’t sound that joyful, I admit. There’s a murdered sex-worker in a skip to start with. But, ‘Tequila Leila’ is not quite done with life yet. For 10 minutes and 38 seconds, as her brain stays active after her body’s death, we follow her memories of life, family, friends and the city, each sparked by a recalled taste or smell. I could almost taste the cardamom coffee myself.
Leila’s memories are shocking, an unhappy mix of sexual, physical and gender abuse. Ultimately, though, she finds her tribe: a group of people many would consider ‘misfits’ of society, who have mirrored her own difficult way through life in many ways. These friends and the very real sense of love they develop for each other is what truly defines her. They are a group of survivors. Despite life crushing her at seemingly every turn, Leila retains her humanity and love, and that’s what draws these friends to her. They need her as much as she needs them.
The second part of the book where her friends fight to have her buried with the love of her life and not left in the Cemetery of the Companionless, which she clearly is not, is more story-telling. Almost a caper, if you will. I wasn’t quite so keen on this part of the book, but I think it was because I was so enjoying the first part, I didn’t want it to end. Literally. You can’t help but be with them every step of the way, though, cheering them on, holding your breath, hoping they manage it.
An exceptional book that will stay with me. And so many don’t nowadays. Haunting, lyrical, magical, touching. Full of humour to take the edge off the heartbreak. I wondered whether to include it here as it is quite a tough read, but the over-riding life-affirming feeling you are left with at the end is worth it. As Leila says:
In the end, she lives on in their hearts and memories, becoming so much more than the undervalued girl born into a harsh patriarchal Turkish society she started life as. Good for her. And good for Elif Shafak too. Brave. Very brave. I’m cheering for her too.