Skull Water

Heinz Insu Fenkl

Original publisher: Spiegel & GrauLiterary Fiction

On behalf of: Spiegel & Grau

A haunting, intergenerational coming-of-age novel about identity and displacement.

Insu is the son of a Korean mother and a GI father in the U.S. Army. Growing up near the army base in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, he and his two best friends, also “half and halfs,” spend their days skipping school, selling scavenged Western goods on the black market, and testing the boundaries between childhood and adulthood.

When Insu hears an old legend that water collected from a dead person’s skull will cure any sickness, he vows to collect some in order to heal the gangrenous foot of his Big Uncle, who has been exiled by the family to a mountain cave to die. Big Uncle, a geomancer who was uprooted by the Korean War, has embraced his solitude and fate and attempts to teach his nephew that life is not limited to what we can see or what we think we know.

In this sweeping tale that draws on Korean folklore and legend, Skull Water explores questions surrounding family, loyalty, and history, and the ways in which our past continues to haunt our present.


“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