In vignettes that range from warm and nostalgic to brutally realistic, Elif Shafak, one of Turkey’s most prominent writers, tells the story of a woman who started life in 1947 as Leyla Afi fe Kamile, the daughter of an Islamic polygamist, and ended it in 1990 as Tequila Leila, one of Istanbul’s many murdered sex workers. As her body cools in a dumpster, Leila, exhibiting the “persistent brain activity in people who had just died,” recalls key moments. Triggered by a Proustian rush of smells and told in seemingly random order, the memories that surface in Leila’s final 10 Minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World (Bloomsbury, $27) describe her early years in a rural town, dominated by folklore and misogyny; her escape from abuse, an increasingly strict father, and an arranged marriage at age 16; testify to her strength and resilience; and, above all, celebrate the five friends who helped her survive on Istanbul’s unforgiving street of brothels. All as marginalized as Leila, what remains of this devoted group—the gifted son of a woman judged to be too independent, a trans woman, a Somali refugee, a Lebanese person of short stature, and the firebrand communist she marries—bands together to rescue Leila’s story from the anonymity of her body’s numbered grave in the cemetery of the companionless.
Lucy Ellman pushes her characters and her readers to their limits with this explosive stream-of-consciousness narrative; she tackles what appear to be mundane subjects with adroit and exquisite skill. Despite its notable length, Ducks, Newburyport (Biblioasis, $22.95), a fi nalist for the Booker Prize, is made up of only a handful of long, boisterous sentences that seem to focus on everything and nothing: our narrator’s children, the climate, Emily Dickinson, pie, a rage that prevails as inconsolable in our current political atmosphere, her mother, her life during and after cancer. Ellman toggles beautifully between the noise of fl amboyant prose and sparse, delicate phrases. The stream-of-thought narrative grants us the privilege of unadulterated access to our narrator; this is a novel that begs to be intellectually interacted with, but in order to do so successfully, you’ll have to give in to the narrative and let Ellman take you with her.
Rules for Visiting (Penguin Press, $26) is a terrifi cally smart novel about the changing contours of friendship in the digital age, as told through the experiences of May Attaway, a charming, idiosyncratic, and stubborn recluse whose world revolves around the trees and plants she landscapes on the grounds of a local university. Attaway lives in her childhood home with her aging father and suddenly finds herself with unexpected time off from her job. She decides to visit four far-fl ung friends, none of whom she has seen in years. Having never ventured beyond her carefully constructed, solitary existence, she relies on her knowledge of classical literature and a few how-to manuals to guide her into unfamiliar terrain. There are no high dramas or epiphanies during her month-long tour, but with each visit May begins to appreciate that friendships must be cultivated and nurtured just like the plants and trees she tends back home. Author Jessica Francis Kane knows just when to layer in literary and botanical references to enhance the story, leaving the reader to meditate not only about friendship and life’s simple pleasures, but also about the costs of human encroachment on the natural world.