In a novel circling a murdered woman's last moments as she recalls key incidents from her life, Shafak (The Three Daughters of Eve, 2017, etc.) highlights Turkish society’s treatment of women and outsiders.
Tequila Leila, a middle-aged sex worker, lingers at the border between life and death inside a metal garbage can on the fringes of Istanbul—to which Turkish-born Shafak has written a highly ambivalent love letter; lyrical prose embraces the sensual, sordid, and corrupt city she no longer visits for political reasons. Speaking of sensual, Leila’s final minutes are structured around remembered tastes, from the salt on her skin as a newborn to the single malt whiskey sipped with her last customer before recklessly getting into a car with strangers. The flavor of watermelon returns her to a childhood complicated by confusion over her birth mother’s identity and irreparably damaged by an uncle’s repeated sexual abuse beginning when she was 6 in 1953. In 1963 Leila faced an arranged marriage while mourning her younger brother’s death, events associated with goat stew. Instead she ran 1,000 miles away from her hometown to Istanbul and was quickly trapped into prostitution. More taste memories follow her life as a sex worker as well as her happy marriage to a leftist artist, cut short by his death during a protest march. Tastes also represent the five friends central to Leila’s life and their individual stories of being mistreated, victimized, and/or made to feel invisible. Sexual abuse, political corruption, and religious fundamentalists’ intolerance have been the tropes in so many Shafak novels that her outrage here, however heartfelt, feels shopworn. And her plotting can be overwrought. Yet Shafak's ability to create empathy for her cast of sex workers and social outcasts can be irresistible, especially when a character is allowed more complexity, like Leila’s oldest friend, Sinan, who hid his love for Leila until her death.
An uneven mix of charm, melodrama, polemics, and cliché that doesn’t represent the prolific Shafak at her best.