Skull Water (Hardcover)

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Staff Reviews

This is a story not only of one boy’s identity, but of a whole country’s. Set in 1970s Korea, Skull Water immerses us in the life of Insu, the son of a Korean mother and an American soldier. While some of his childhood was spent in the U.S. and Germany, Insu and his other “half and half” friends seem like a experts at Koran Army base life. When he discovers that his Big Uncle is dying, he goes on a mission to save him, using Korean folk medical traditions. 1974 feels like a turning point—Insu and his friends are influenced by Western ways, but his maternal family is firmly tied to traditional Korean traditions. —Elizabeth Hardin, Snail Readers Circle


"A fascinating story of a young mixed-race man caught between two cultures, not knowing what to keep and what to leave behind."--James McBride, author of The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

A "magnificent" (Ha Jin), "mesmerizing" (James McBride), and "magical" (Marie Myung-Ok Lee) fever dream of a novel that interweaves the coming-of-age of a 1970s Korean-American boy grappling with his identity and the impact of intergenerational trauma.

Growing up outside a US military base in South Korea in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Insu--the son of a Korean mother and a German father enlisted in the US Army--spends his days with his "half and half" friends skipping school, selling scavenged Western goods on the black market, watching Hollywood movies, and testing the boundaries between childhood and adulthood. When he hears a legend that water collected in a human skull will cure any sickness, he vows to dig up a skull in order to heal his ailing Big Uncle, a geomancer who has been exiled by the family to a mountain cave to die.

Insu's quest takes him and his friends on a sprawling, wild journey into some of South Korea's darkest corners, opening them up to a fantastical world beyond their grasp. Meanwhile, Big Uncle has embraced his solitude and fate, trusting in otherworldly forces Insu cannot access. As he recalls his wartime experiences of betrayal and lost love, Big Uncle attempts to teach his nephew that life is not limited to what we can see--or think we know.

Largely autobiographical and sparkling with magical realism, Skull Water is the story of a boy coming into his own--and the ways the past haunts the present, in a country on the cusp of modernity, struggling to confront its troubled history. As Insu seeks the wisdom of his ancestors, what he learns, he hopes, will save not just his uncle but himself.

About the Author

Born in South Korea to a German father and a Korean mother, Heinz Insu Fenkl grew up in Korea until he was twelve, and then in Germany and the U.S. A professor of English at SUNY New Paltz, where he teaches creative writing, Asian and Asian American literature, and film, he is also a folklorist, who has edited anthologies of Korean folklore and translated seminal folktales and Buddhist texts; and from its inception until 2017 he was a member of the editorial board for Harvard University's Azalea: Journal of Korean Literature and Culture. A section of Skull Water appeared in The New Yorker. Fenkl lives in New York's Hudson Valley.

Product Details
ISBN: 9781954118195
ISBN-10: 1954118198
Publisher: Spiegel & Grau
Publication Date: February 7th, 2023
Pages: 384
Language: English