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