"Blue Water Djinn"
by Téa Obreht
Originally published in the August 2, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

Last year Obreht had a snippet of her forthcoming novel published in the debut fiction issue. She’s very young, so that is an impressive feat, but I’m afraid I didn’t really like her work. I wasn’t really looking forward to reading “Blue Water Djinn,” and I put it off through the week.  While it wasn’t my favorite story, I was swept up when I finally began it. Here’s its opening sentence.

By the time the boy climbs out of bed and goes outside, they are already searching for the Frenchman, a guest of the hotel, whose clothing has been spotted adrift in the kelp-logged surf by one of the local fisherman.

The boy’s name is Jack. His mother is part of the management of this hotel on the shore of the Red Sea. After finding the clothing of the Frenchman, the rest of the hotel employees, all of whom Jack knows, are searching for some clue as to the Frenchman’s whereabouts. They fear the worst, but since strange but innocuous things happen in large hotels, they want to search every corner before involving the police.

Our third person narrator closely follows Jack, but in that opening sentence the present tense combined with “already” makes the Jack’s involvement in the disappearance of the Frenchman suspect. Why already, especially when this is not a reminiscence? One of the strengths of this story is how well Obreht inserts such ambiguity in otherwise straightforward sentences. In last year’s offering, Obreht’s writing felt over-edited and a bit stilted, but this piece, though contemplative, felt immediate.

Furthermore, I’m finding as I try to write this review that there aren’t many obvious quotable passages. From what I can tell, there are two reasons: first, when I read it I was very involved in the story and didn’t take the time to underline passages that stood out. Second, even after going through it, the sentences are worker sentences. They don’t get in the way, yet they are beautiful and intricate in their technical aspects. They work to tell the story, to set the tone, pace, and mood. To pull them out of context just to quote them here seems wrong.

But let me give a slight introduction to the story, which is actually quite simple. Much of the first part we’re going with Jack from place to place as he watches the employees look for the Frenchman. His curiosity is infectious. We feel that he knows something but that he is naive enough to not fully understand. His curiosity is the type of curiosity a child might feel toward something mystical, yet the setting is perfectly realistic and the Frenchman’s disappearance has all the appearances of a simple drowning.

I don’t want to give away the story, which I very much enjoyed. As much as I enjoyed the story, though, my real appreciation was in the craftsmanship. I felt like John, to an extent. I felt his innocent wonder. This short story quickly made Obreht an author I want to watch — her first book will be out next year.

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By |2016-06-17T13:26:25-04:00July 27th, 2010|Categories: New Yorker Fiction, Téa Obreht|Tags: |9 Comments


  1. Trevor Berrett July 27, 2010 at 4:41 pm

    New fiction forum up!

  2. Thomas July 30, 2010 at 10:46 am

    Enjoyed this story. Writing is absoltuely generous and lush. Reminds me a bit of Karen Russell actually. Bit confused about the ending however–I must admit I’m not a fan of the “cut-off endings” a la grace paley. I think more than anything this is a story about the world beyond our lives, and the disire to see it.

  3. Joe July 30, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    The theme of this story makes for an interesting comparison with The Erlking from a few weeks ago. (I preferred this one.) As Thomas said, the writing was lovely. On the other hand, I found the overall shape of the story fairly predictable. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but after I read it I felt that I wanted something more.

  4. Trevor Berrett July 31, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    My thoughts (I really liked this one) are posted above.

  5. Ken August 22, 2010 at 4:37 am

    I found this unbearably dull. I get very tired of over descriptive writing. Why for instance does it matter that the police captain has “green uniform” or that a wrecked ship is on the “eastern” side of the lighthouse or that she givethe names of fish in the area as if most readers would find it significant it’s “dogfish” or a “butterfly fish.” The boy’s character is minimally developed and the story is one of those “is it a monster or a subjective vision” type things which, typically and tiresomely, is not solved as if an ambiguous ending to a supernatural tale is not in itself somewhat tired so many years after “The Turn of the Screw.”

  6. Ken August 22, 2010 at 5:24 pm

    I want to amend what I’d written last night. I was clearly churlish and cranky. I read the story again and basically liked it. Not great but certainly better than I’d written last night and yet I still found the ambiguous ending a bit irritating and also the descriptiveness. On a second read, though, I enjoyed the boy’s character development and figuring out the mysteries of his life and of the Frenchman’s disappearance. Also interesting is his revulsion at the Frenchman’s obesity. At times, it seemed like the indirect free style seemed too literary and sophisticated to convey a child’s point-of-view but then this could have been form the (putatively adult) 3rd person narrator. Janet Frame, earlier this year, did, in my opinion, a better job of conveying adult narration of an event experienced by a child.

  7. Trevor Berrett August 22, 2010 at 9:10 pm

    Very interesting how that happens, isn’t it Ken? I often wonder how many of my reviews would be different if I read the work in a different setting. Not to say that your first impressions aren’t valid or important.

    I hadn’t had a chance to get on here to refresh myself with my thoughts before you wrote your amendment. For the most part, I still think well of this story. The details, while I recognize your feelings, didn’t bother me. I may have felt they enhanced the mood, and to me this is a piece primarily about mood and atmosphere, about the impressions.

    However, I definitely agree with your final sentence about Janet Frame.

  8. KevinfromCanada October 27, 2010 at 2:05 pm

    I’ve been preoccupied with book prize reading and absent from this New Yorker forum — but the magazines have been saved and the prize reading is almost done, so I’ll bring forward comments on some as I catch up.

    I quite enjoyed this story. The characters, particularly Jack, acquired some depth; the story line maintained my interest; and the prose was comfortable (I rather liked the descriptive parts). The weakest part for me was the ending — I think I would have preferred it to be left ambiguous. Not a great work, but a highly readable one.

  9. Trevor Berrett October 27, 2010 at 2:10 pm

    Great to see you in these parts again, Kevin!

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