A "mesmerizing" (James McBride), "magnificent" (Ha Jin) intergenerational coming-of-age novel set in South Korea--about friendship, belonging, and displacement.
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 find some 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 world beyond their grasp. Meanwhile, Big Uncle has embraced his solitude and fate, and as he recalls his wartime experiences of betrayal and lost love, he attempts to teach his nephew that life is not limited to what we can see--or think we know.
Largely autobiographical and deeply rooted in time and place, Skull Water is the story of a boy coming into his own--and the ways the past continues to haunt the present in a country struggling to confront its troubled history as it moves into modernity.
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 the author of the novel Memories of My Ghost Brother. 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.
Praise for Heinz Insu Fenkl's Skull Water: "A brilliant novel populated by a wonderful cast of characters and boasting a number of beautifully realized set pieces that will live in the reader's memory." -- Booklist (starred review)"Fenkl returns a quarter century after Memories of My Ghost Brother with a mesmerizing narrative of a boy named Insu, whose mother is Korean and whose father served in the U.S. Army. After moving back to Korea from Germany in 1974, teenage Insu finds solace with his friends in rebellious acts like ditching school and selling stolen goods on the black market. Then Insu hears an ancient Korean myth from a monk that imbibing water collected from inside a human skull can cure any disease, prompting him to dig up a corpse in order to find skull water to cure his uncle, Big Uncle, a geomancer who suffers from a gangrenous foot and has been exiled to a cave to die. Fenkl elegantly weaves Insu's quest, which doesn't go quite as planned, with a parallel story of Big Uncle in the 1950s during the Korean War. Throughout, the author sustains an otherworldly sense of time and place, and brings to life conceits from Korean folktales ("Past and future--only the words are different, and if one disposes of them, all things become smooth and easy"). It's a lovely achievement." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review)"A magnificent novel with a grand vision and assured execution."-- Ha Jin, author of Waiting"This is a mesmerizing take on what happens when civil war walks into a nation, leaving scarred humanity in its wake. A fascinating story of a young mixed-race man caught between two cultures, not knowing what to keep and what to leave behind. This touching book, written with grace, does more than deliver a fresh perspective on a forgotten war. It's proof that the old, peaceful ways defeat the brutality of the new every time, with a blend of spirit, memory, and folklore, some of which is delivered by the magical spirits that walked, and still walk, this earth. We are all the same. We all walk the middle path to get home. I'm so glad that Heinz Insu Fenkl shows us how to get there." -- James McBride, author of Deacon King Kong"A magical, brutal novel that shines light into a little-known world of a modernizing Korea of 1970s with its vestiges of American occupation, along with the mysteries of ancestors and the hungry ghosts of worlds we cannot see." -- Marie Myung-Ok Lee, author of The Evening Hero"The novel in your hands is something I never knew I'd see, born from things at least two governments hoped to hide. A mixed German Korean boy in 1970s Korea undertakes a quest to save the living with what the dead might know, and he tells us stories across time of this almost- vanished world, and the lives of those thrown away by Korean society and American military forces--his family. Precious, life altering, rebellious, funny, and full of a necessary truth." -- Alexander Chee, author of The Queen of the Night"Skull Water is an amazingly rich mixture, and one it's difficult to classify. If, for instance, I were to think of it as a sort of autofiction, I could compare it to A Childhood--if the boy Harry Crews had needed to operate in both English and Korean and engage in all sorts of complex cultural codeswitching. But the book is also an elegantly structured, multi-stranded work of the imagination, enhanced by some little-known historical elements, and drawing on a deep well of Korean folklore--and extremely rewarding in all of its many dimensions." --xMadison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls' Rising"An epic story that is as much about the modernization of Korea as the coming-of-age of its protagonist. ... [T]he novel comes into its own in the second half as it unites narrative power with philosophical musing with spectacular results. A courageous and profound novel." -- Kirkus Reviews