Shafak’s 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Turkey) and Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle (USA)

Hello everyone – how *are* you? I very much hope that you’re weathering the current turbulence OK, and that reading is bringing you some solace and distraction.

Here are a couple of novels that have hit the mark for me recently – impressive examples of literary and American Gothic crime respectively.

Elif Shafak, 10 Minutes 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Viking 2019)

Opening line: Her name was Leila.

I’ve had 10 Minutes on my reading pile ever since I saw it shortlisted for the 2019 Booker Prize. I was drawn by its intriguing title and Istanbul setting, but was also somewhat nervous about whether the author could pull off ‘the concept’ – chronicling the final 10 minutes and 38 seconds of a woman’s ebbing consciousness *after* she has been murdered. It sounded both like a compelling narrative device and one that could easily go wrong.

It didn’t take me long to realise that Shafak was up to the task. Leila’s memories of her favourite tastes and smells, like cardamom coffee and spiced goat stew, trigger rich memories from her life, but never tip into mawkishness. We’re shown with sensitivity and compassion why Leila’s life took the course it did, and how she navigated its challenges with spirit and resilience. We also get to know her highly original friends, as well as the city they’ve chosen to make their home: the complex fusion of East and West that is Istanbul. The novel is above all a celebration of friendship and solidarity in an often intolerant, unequal world. It’s stayed with me a long time.

If you’d like to find out more about Elif Shafak, she’s given a TED talk on the politics of fiction in which she also speaks about her own background and writing.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Penguin 2009 [1962]

Opening line: My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood.

I found my way to this cult American Gothic novel in a very roundabout way. I’m a fan of the actress Elisabeth Moss, saw a clip of her playing the author Shirley Jackson in the film Shirley (based on the novel by Susan Scarf Merrell), and decided I had to read something by her – because by all accounts she was an incredibly interesting woman and has had a huge influence on writers from Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. My eyes lit up when I found Castle, because it has a *strong* element of crime.

Our young narrator – Mary Katherine or Merricat – lives a largely isolated life in the Blackwood home with her sister Constance and Uncle Julian for company. Early on, she nonchalantly tells us that ‘everyone else in my family is dead’. The rest of the novel teases out the unfortunate story of the deceased Blackwoods, and relates a series of events in the present that will have a decisive impact on the family’s future. 

I was hooked within a couple of pages by Merricat’s highly original voice and the creepy Gothic atmosphere that pervades the novel. While you could happily classify Castle as Gothic crime, it’s also the kind of novel that ranges well beyond one genre, and has some interesting things to say about suffocating patriarchy, sisterly sacrifice and social exclusion. Castle is a genuinely unsettling delight and I’m pretty certain I’ll be rereading it a number of times.

Here’s an image of Moss playing (the fictionalized version of) Shirley Jackson

Shirley

Current reading: I’m making my way through the final Petrona 2020 submissions – Scandinavian crime in English translation – in preparation for our judges’ meeting. This has had to be pushed back due to the pandemic, but we’re looking forward to announcing our shortlist soon! There’ll be further updates on the award website: http://www.petronaaward.co.uk/

I’m also halfway through Margot Kinberg’s latest novel A Matter of Motive, the first in the ‘Patricia Stanley’ series, which is proving to be a lovely distraction from the outside world. I’m particularly enjoying the depiction of Patricia’s learning curve as a young policewoman on her first case, and the intricacies of a rather puzzling murder. I have my theories, but suspect there’ll be a few plot twists yet… You can find out more at Margot’s blog, which also features short stories and posts on crime fiction (Margot has an encyclopedic knowledge of crime as some of you may already know). Highly recommended!