Téa Obreht “Blue Water Djinn”
The New Yorker Fiction: 20 Under 40
August 2, 2010 issue

We learn in the first paragraph that “Blue Water Djinn” is set in Egypt and a quick online search reveals beautiful images of Ras Um Sid (most of which are sneakily connected to advertisements for vacations), which is just east of Sharm El Sheikh, a diver’s paradise, not only for the underwater life but for the wrecks beneath the waves.

This is the world that Téa Obreht depicts in “Blue Water Djinn”, which manages to capture the magic of the sea and the folklore surrounding it through the eyes of Jack, her child narrator.

The setting is vitally important to this story. It works for me primarily because the setting feels unfamiliar, and I, like the Frenchman in the story, am recognizable immediately because I, as the reader, do not fit. I am given a place as an observer.

But I feel this at a distance. And not only because the story unfolds in a place distant from my reader’s seat.

With some stories, like Linda Hogan’s Power and Kate Grenville’s The Secret River, the setting takes on a power of its own, wields itself in the narrative like a character. (Mind you, to be fair, I should really draw comparisons with short stories that have more successfully brought setting to the heart of their works.) For me, the setting was an important element in “Blue Water Djinn”, indeed the most remarkable element, but it didn’t hold its own power; it overshadowed the narrative, even the mystical elements of it, but the story still felt incomplete.

There are elements in “Blue Water Djinn” that I appreciate — the scene with the turtle is very effective, the image of the man’s clothes laid out upon the beach is memorable, the suspense surrounding the search for the Frenchman is worth noting — but for it to have worked for me, I either needed a little less setting or a little more character, and either a stronger sense of the boy’s everyday life (to contrast with the crisis of the man’s disappearance and the boy’s sense of isolation with his mother travelling) or a more intense feeling of crisis.

Or, well, something. Something less. Or something more. Something.

Or, do you think I missed something? Here‘s a link to a brief Q&A, which also contains a link to the short story( at the time of posting).

Have you read something lately that’s left you wondering if you’ve missed something? Have you read Téa Obreht’s work before, or do you plan to?