Skull Water: A Novel
- By Heinz Insu Fenkl
- Spiegel & Grau
- 384 pp.
- Reviewed by Alice Stephens
- February 14, 2023
A mixed-race boy straddles two worlds in 1970s South Korea.
Like its half-Korean, 15-year-old (“reckoned fourteen in the American way”) main character, Insu, the novel Skull Water by Heinz Insu Fenkl straddles many worlds. Difficult to categorize, the book encompasses multiple genres, including the Bildungsroman, the picaresque, autofiction, and historical fiction. Reminiscent of iconic coming-of-age heroes Huck Finn, Tom Jones, and David Copperfield, Insu narrates a seemingly lighthearted series of adventures as a mixed-race boy growing up among the U.S. Army bases of South Korea that reveal a society beset by corruption and hypocrisy.
In 1974, Insu and his family return to his birthland of South Korea when his German American soldier father is once again stationed there. Instead of hanging out with his childhood friends — also born to Korean women and American men — he is attracted to his mother’s village of Sambongni, where Big Uncle, Little Uncle, and other relatives live. A geomancer, Big Uncle has been exiled to a cave across the river from the village due to an infected foot.
When Insu asks Big Uncle about his foot, he replies, “Well, it’s a story. Like some folktale. But then everyone’s life is like a story, isn’t it? A story from a long, long time ago.”
Big Uncle’s story involves the ghost of a virgin princess who couples with him in order to be released into the next world, leaving his foot with two tiny puncture wounds that fester over the years. In turn, Insu tells Big Uncle about Robin Hood, who asks his faithful retainers to bury him where his arrow falls. Impressed with the story, Big Uncle requests the same of Insu, shooting an arrow into the night.
The product of two cultures, the colonizer and the colonized, Insu lives a life awash in contradiction and conflict. He and his half-Korean friends reside in the country of their mothers’ birth, but do so according to the American laws of the army bases. Their fathers are in an army that’s fighting a losing war. Their mothers are former sex workers who married American servicemen and earn extra income by selling items purchased from the PX on the black market. As Insu explains:
“We usually avoided talking — or thinking — too much about our mothers’ histories, about what they did. It was enough to have to be involved in their day-to-day schemes without wondering why all of their friends and acquaintances were technically criminals. But then, what could we expect, living in a military dictatorship in Korea under the umbrella of the U.S. Eighth Army, where everything was a SNAFU and every other GI was out to make a buck at Uncle Sam’s expense, where the war was mostly over but the casualties kept mounting and usually turned out to be people like us?”
As a “half-and-half,” Insu struggles with his identity. He and his friends are outcasts in the homelands of both parents, their futures bleak. As one friend says, “[S]ometimes I think [our moms] just stopped giving a fuck at a certain point, like they realized their half-and-half kids could never amount to anything and just gave up.”
Exploring his Korean identity to counterbalance the venality of American-army-base life, Insu feels compelled to help Big Uncle. After learning that drinking water from a human skull is curative, he and his friends set out to unearth the body of a recently deceased neighbor. Repelled by the stink of the decomposing body, they fail.
When Big Uncle dies — run over by a taxi; “It looked like he was surrendering” — Insu must find the arrow Big Uncle shot into the night so that he can be buried where it landed. All of Insu’s seemingly episodic adventures come together in this astonishing, vivid climax, as the novel manifests into yet another genre, the folkloric tale.
Narrated in Insu’s straightforward voice, Skull Water feels both old-fashioned and refreshingly new. Thankfully unburdened by the overly complicated narrative structure currently favored in historical novels, the timeline is chronological, from 1974-1975, with some interim chapters narrating Big Uncle’s wartime experience. Inviting the reader into Insu’s bicultural world, Korean words are italicized but not defined, and author Fenkl refers to people in direct translation from their Korean designations, such as Nokchon Cousin and Country Sister.
As with the best coming-of-age stories, the ending is bittersweet. Insu’s friend group has broken up due to outside events, all sad, one tragic. He and his family will leave Korea to join his father, now stationed at Fort Ord in California. One story has come to an end, but another is about to begin.
Born to a Korean mother and an American-soldier father, Alice Stephens was one of the many mixed-race Koreans adopted out of the country. She is the author of the novel Famous Adopted People, co-founder of the Adoptee Literary Festival, a book reviewer, and a columnist for the Independent.