20 Under 40: A Comprehensive (Subjective) Guide

Téa Obreht, “Blue Water Djinn,” August 2:

Obreht is one of the authors whose inclusion on this list baffled me. The entire basis was one novel excerpt: “The Tiger’s Wife,” which ran in The New Yorker last year. Granted, it was an outstanding excerpt that brought her to instant recognition, but still, she has published literally nothing apart from that excerpt and one other short story in The Atlantic.

With this story, she completely earns her spot. It’s in my top three of the series. The plot has intrigue from very early on, when clothing belonging to a hotel guest called “the Frenchman” is found washed up on shore. Our protagonist, Jack, is the young son of the woman who owns the hotel. He knows something that he isn’t telling Fawad, a fisherman and friend to Jack who is sort of running the investigation into the Frenchman’s disappearance.

Obreht writes gorgeously. For example, in describing a sea turtle being hauled in: “They turned it onto its back, and the shell drew a thick rut in the sand as they dragged it up the slope, its yellow-green underbelly wet, so soft it was almost obscene, its flippers drooping like towels over the edges of the shell.” Hot damn. Eventually we find out that Jack, the night before, saw the Frenchman being carried out to sea, looking like he was sitting on the waves. From Jack’s perspective, he was taken by the Djinn—mythical sea people about which he has heard stories—but from a rational person’s, Jack was dreaming, and the Frenchie simply drowned. It’s what you make of it. But this one was a beautiful, surreal slice of beach life that rewards a second reading.


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