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


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:

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!

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

  1. Thank you so much, Mrs. P.! What a lovely thing to read, and how kind of you. I hope you’ll enjoy the rest of the novel. As for the others… I really did enjoy We have…. It’s unsettling, and I mean that as a compliment. One of the things I especially liked about that novel was Jackson’s choice of voice and narrator; it adds so much to the suspense of the story, in my opinion. And thanks for the reminder of 10 Minutes…. That’s been on my wish list for some time, and I need to read it. I. will. Read. It.

    Hope you’re staying safe!

    • You’re very welcome, Margot! I’m really enjoying Patricia’s company, and look forward to seeing where the investigation goes!

      Yes, Merricat is quite the narrator. And I’m keen to read the novel a second time, armed with the knowledge I’ve acquired from the first 🙂 Hope you like 10 Minutes when you get to it. It’s a very rich book.

      All fine at this end, thanks – very much hope all is well with you too x

    • It’s great, isn’t it? I’m not sure why I haven’t read any of Jackson’s work before, but I’m very glad to have found her. There’s also a recent film adaptation of the novel, it seems, which looks quite faithful – although I’m not sure whether they’ve managed to communicate Merricat’s special voice!

  2. Three interesting books here. I had not heard of Shafak’s book and I am still not sure I would read it. But I was glad to learn about it.

    We Have Always Lived in the Castle is on my list of classics to read. I have only read her famous short story “The Lottery”, and that was when I was much, much younger. (But which I just went and read again online, and it is very chilling. And that probably put me off reading more by the author.)

    Glad to hear you are enjoying Margot’s book. I will be reading it soon.

    • Hello Tracy – I know what you mean. There may be some books you know just aren’t for you, but it’s good to know they’re out there and a little bit about them…

      I’ve read a bit about ‘The Lottery’ and the incredible reader responses it generated, so I think it will have to be my next stop now. CASTLE is chilling in some respects, but could be viewed as oddly heart-warming as well (in a twisty kind of way). I’m intrigued by how many different ways you can interpret the novel (always a good sign). Jackson had a truly outstanding imagination.

      Hope you enjoy Margot’s book – I read a bit more last night and have had to adjust my list of prime suspects… 🙂

  3. I haven’t read this book by Shafak yet, but I do enjoy her work generally. As for Shirley Jackson, I am a big, big fan and this is one of her very best!
    Nice to see you again in the land of blogging – you have been missing in action lately…

    • Hi MarinaSofia! CASTLE is the only one of Jackson’s works I’ve read so far. What would you recommend I try next? ‘The Lottery’, perhaps?!

      Yes, it’s been a good while since I blogged. The pandemic seems to have generated quite a few practical tasks that have hoovered up lots of time. I’ve also started a little side-project that’s proving very therapeutic in these challenging times! Warning: fiction but not strictly crime; political; snark factor high 🙂

      Whatever gets us through!!!

      • The Haunting of Hill House if you want another novel, but her short stories are ace as well – collected in various volumes: Dark Tales would probably suit you down to the ground. Will check out your side project.

      • Thanks MarinaSofia – on all counts! I do love a well-crafted short story, so will take a look at Dark Tales next x

    • Hi Stella – I watched a bit of Shafak’s Ted talk yesterday, and can see that she’s a very interesting and engaging speaker. Would love to see her in person some day as you have…

      • The Buckingham Literary Festival is suprisingly big-hitting actually given it’s only been running for three years.

      • Good to know. I hope it makes it out of the other side of the pandemic. The lack of government support for the arts/theatre is very concerning at the moment.

      • Sadly very true. I also hope it does. It’s a three-day event held at the main Buckingham University campus and it’s just lovely. There’s usually a wide range of speakers and last time we came away with massive bags of freebie books.

    • Hello Jo – I haven’t as yet, so thanks very much for the link. Will definitely check it out x

      There’s a big Shirley Jackson fan club!

  4. You British readers are made of sterner stuff than I am. Perhaps it’s reading Shakespeare’s plays or about the internecine struggles among monarchs. I can’t read about someone’s last few minutes of life after being murdered. I think Shirley Jackson is a bit too suspenseful for me. I liked Margot Kinberg’s book and am awaiting more books featuring Patricia Stanley. It has good character development and an interesting plot with a batch of murder suspects.
    I did read The Katharina Code and found it very relaxing. William Wisting is a normal guy, a family man with no substance abuse problems and he plods along in his investigation of a cold case. That was also my speed.
    Murder victims’ last words, abused children or animals, terror are not in my wheelhouse. I like the investigation and the characters. And of course, the resolution.
    But I do love Donna Leon’s books and there is often no justice, but what a story.

    • Hi Kathy – there are some crime novels that I can’t read (I’m not fond of serial killers and I loathe gratuitous violence), so I totally get that some novels just aren’t for you. In fact, I think it’s a really good thing to know exactly what you do or don’t like in terms of your reading. There are too many books for us to get through in the time we have as it is, so it’s important not to waste time trying to read stuff that we would really rather not. I’m quite brutal now when deciding what to read next, and I won’t hesitate to stop reading something if it hasn’t grabbed me by a certain point…

      What’s the best crime novel you’ve read in the last six months? I loved The Katharina Code too 🙂

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